Cybersecurity

Voice Assistants in the Boardroom: The Pro’s and Con’s

Australians are going crazy for voice assistants – they are selling faster there than in the US, according to Voicebot.ai, and 5.7 million Aussies already have them. They are becoming popular in New Zealand too, reportedly, although there has been some scarcity of supply.

So it’s not surprising that boards of directors in both countries are considering, and even adopting voice assistants to accelerate access to data and to accomplish some tasks. There are certainly benefits to be obtained, as businesses in general are seeing a number of solid advantages that voice assistants offer – for example, sharp productivity improvements as Gartner forecasts that these digital helpers will recover up to 6.2 billion employee hours.

But the boardroom is different from other places of business: There are security and interactivity issues that are particular to boards and their work, as consultant Exstream Security notes. “Too often, boardroom settings and configurations are done in the interests of convenience but leave the boardroom highly vulnerable. It is the responsibility of all staff and all companies and organisations to understand the risks and take all reasonable measure to protect privacy in the boardroom.”  And a voice assistant could constitute such a vulnerability.

Business benefits of voice assistants

Voice assistants, or smart speakers use artificial intelligence to respond to voice commands. The best known are Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, Microsoft’s Cortana and Google Home.

Each type of voice assistant uses a form of artificial intelligence called natural language processing. Using a series of algorithms, the system is able to interpret what the user is saying, and to devise an appropriate response. Computers are programmed to recognise sections of words, known as ‘phones.’ These are then linked with other ‘phones’ so that “phonemes” are built which are effectively different words. And machine learning programming allows the assistant to ‘learn’ a particular voice, more words, more functions.

Business benefits are significant. The most obvious is more rapid access to your computer – just tell it what to do instead of keying it in.

Then, for example, using the voice assistant can cut down the time it takes to solve problems, giving your employees more time to work on providing clients and consumers with added value.

Voice assistants can also take on the responsibility of remembering important dates, deadlines, and scheduling, therefore your professionals have more time and resources to help drive innovation and decrease costs.

“One of the most important business benefits of voice assistants is the streamlined operations that come with integrating these digital assistants into your enterprise. Through emerging AI innovations and deep learning, these assistants never stop working. Accessing reports, analysing data and keeping crucial systems updated, this enterprise AI technology offers your business seamless day-to-day operations that are constantly being supervised,” writes one commentator.

In all of these ways and more, Gartner predicts that voice assistants will generate $2.9 trillion in business value in the next decade.

Boards should be aware of the security issues voice assistants can bring

But there are disadvantages inherent in boards using voice assistants – there are significant security issues that should be carefully considered.

Voice hacking has become a prevalent issue, according to consultant Ian Poole. Smart speakers can also be hacked into, and used for listening in. The wifi networks they run on are often vulnerable to hacking.

Still another danger is that sensitive data will be transcribed by workers who ‘train’ artificial intelligence.

“When voice assistants software such as Amazon’s Alexa responds to the simple command of calling Mom, thousands of global workers have helped train the software to ensure that, say, Tom from work isn’t dialled instead. The workers transcribe and annotate recordings that are fed back into the software to improve Alexa’s human speech recognition,” explains one expert.

As with anything new, organisations must use large doses of caution any time they bring in new technologies. As the competition continues to ramp up around using voice assistants for boardroom purposes and other business purposes, boards and executives would be wise to ask many questions about confidentiality, cybersecurity and cyber risks. In addition, it’s prudent to ask if humans are working behind the scenes in tandem or in addition to artificial intelligence and machine learning programs.

Boards have to consider the unique risks that boardroom conversations pose if they were leaked. Any mention of a product name, key product details, competitive strategies or of specific types of intellectual property could be transcribed and leaked, posing a dangerous cyber threat.

Before putting a voice assistant in the boardroom, boards should consult carefully with their cyber security team to ensure that they do not have dangerous vulnerabilities.

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