A Vision of Voice Disruption

By Tony Donohoe, Chief Technology Officer and Senior Vice President of Technology at Expedia Inc.

Simplicity is driving technology. Thirty years ago, technology was defined by a disc. Since then, there have been advancements just about every decade to bring us to where we are now – a mobile driven world, where you can search and book at any point, in any time, on any device. Recently, mobile has provided a huge shift across industries, driving 50% of traffic coming from mobile. But as technologies evolve, there’s a desire to have personal interactions through technology. Until recently, Voice User Interface was an area considered to be artificial intelligence, but now VUIs have become more commonplace, and people are taking advantage of the value that these hands-free, eyes-free interfaces provide in many situations.

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Voice is potentially challenging for us in that there is no structured interface. We have trained Expedia users to click their mouse in a certain way or put their thumb in a certain field to get a response. We’ve trained them to declare where they’re going to and when. We’ve trained them to search for a single product at a time. That won’t be possible in voice. The consumer’s expectation will be, “did I get an answer to my unstructured question?” We need to build the capacity to handle unstructured voice search queries and produce structured search results. That’s a great challenge and opportunity, but we’re one of the few companies that will be able to do it.

At Expedia, our mission is to revolutionize travel through the power of technology. Twenty years ago, we disrupted the travel industry by turning travel agents’ screens around and allowing customers to book hotels and flights directly. This made customers’ lives incredibly easy because they could take knowledge into their own hands for decision making.

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Now, in order to provide natural, contextually aware conversations with our customers we know the best way is to do what we do best, test-and-learn. We began embarking on this journey with Natural Language Processing for the first time about 3 years ago with a few Expedia tasks built on text input. Today, we’re excited to unveil our first foray into voice-activated search content: The Expedia skill for Amazon Alexa.

Here’s a technical look at how it works:

We used AWS Lambda, a zero-administration compute platform, which could not be more simple. It is incredibly fast to get started and scales with ease. A freshly created function is ready and able to handle tens of thousands of requests per hour with absolutely no incremental effort on your part.

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Consumers recognize the value of VUIs, and want it to work in more ways. We are committed to expanding and learning within this ecosystem. This is just the beginning of our testing, we are aware that hotel and flight search results remain incredibly complex from a voice perspective. If you conduct a flight search on our desktop, we’ll show you up to 1600 results. Even if we just read you the top five best options, we need to work through the most important data pieces to share with customers.

The future has endless possibilities, and we have a lot to learn, but we are excited to continue to share our progress.

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