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The VoiceFirst Roundtable - Episode 8

Host: Bradley Metrock (CEO, Score Publishing)

Guest: Tim O'Reilly (Founder and CEO, O'Reilly Media)

Duration: 28 minutes, 32 seconds

Podcast Links:

Apple Podcasts


Google Play Music



Stitcher Radio


YouTube (+ closed captioning)

Tim O'Reilly's referenced upcoming book, WTF: What's The Future And Why It's Up To Us, can be pre-ordered through Amazon here.

My LinkedIn post highlighting this episode of The VoiceFirst Roundtable, and thanking Tim for joining me, is here.


[intro music]​


Bradley Metrock: [00:00:10] Hi. And welcome back to The VoiceFirst Roundtable, for September the 6th, 2017. My name is Bradley Metrock. I'm CEO of a company called Score Publishing, based here in Nashville, Tennessee.


Bradley Metrock: [00:00:25] Our sponsor for The VoiceFirst Roundtable is VoiceXP, blazing the trail in voice technology. VoiceXP is taking the lead in developing Alexa skills for some of the best brands in the world. With VoiceXP, all you have to do is say it to revolutionize your marketing strategy. Check out what these folks are doing at We are really, really thrilled - really honored - to be joined today by Tim O'Reilly - Tim, say hello.


Tim O'Reilly: [00:00:54] Hi how are you? Good.


Bradley Metrock: [00:00:56] You are a noted tech business person. Your career is pretty well known. We're not going to dwell on that we're going to get straight into talking about voice technology. But the first question I want to start with is: do you personally own a smart speaker in your home, like an Echo or a Google Home, and if you do, what do you use it for?


Tim O'Reilly: [00:01:14] Yes, of course I do. In fact, I have several of them. I actually have an Echo and a Google Home, sitting side by side on my kitchen counter, and I basically test them against each other. Last year, I actually wrote a piece called "What Would Alexa Do?" about lessons on UI from the Echo and from Alexa for...not just for other developers, like Google Voice Services, but just in general for how to think about AI-based services.


Tim O'Reilly: [00:01:43] So you know I ask it lots and lots of interesting questions, just to see how it handles them. And so I think...because a lot of what I'm interested in is how does voice become a critical part of the technology infrastructure of the future? And where are we along that curve?


Tim O'Reilly: [00:02:00] But I also ask routine questions - you know, Alexa, what's the weather today? What's the weather in Boston, where I'm headed? These kinds of things that you can do on your smartphone, but it's so much more convenient to be able to do them while you're going about your business. You know, you're making breakfast, or getting ready to go out the door. Calling a car sometime, playing music, asking for recipe conversions. You know, these are sort of common tasks - they're not hard. But the issue is that you start thinking about using the information access of the internet in a context where you wouldn't have done it before - your hands are dirty.


Bradley Metrock: [00:02:40] Sure.


Tim O'Reilly: [00:02:41] Your hands are occupied. And, of course, that changes the way you start using a voice on your other devices. For example, I sometimes sit and I find myself dictating an email on my phone while sitting in front of my computer, because why not? The two just become alternate ways of doing the same task that you already do.


Tim O'Reilly: [00:03:06] The thing is sort of interesting to me is also how a screen-less device like the Echo really advanced the state-of-the-art in user interfaces. You know, a lot of the problems that have come with voice on smartphones is it's not the native UI. It's this add-on. And you see these crazy artifacts of not going #VoiceFirst.


Tim O'Reilly: [00:03:31] And I think that, you know, just like companies had this big wakeup call that they had to do mobile-first design, as opposed to retrofitting, you know, a web design for a larger screen onto the actually had to think "this is my primary device." I think there are a lot of situations where we really have to think of the speech interface as the primary interface. And once you get that right, you can actually build a better, leaner, smarter touchscreen interface as well.


Bradley Metrock: [00:04:01] You know obviously we're big believers. We've named our podcast network VoiceFirst.FM, so obviously we're all-in on that. It's fascinating to hear somebody who has been around technology as long as you have, who's as smart as you are, who's using the Echo and the Google Home in the way that, you know, everybody is. Young people, old people - the fascinating thing is everybody is sort of taking to this technology the same way. And this leads me to my follow-up: with how you're using it - you know, you've sort of taken to it quickly - are you concerned about privacy with devices like these? And, if so, to what extent?


Tim O'Reilly: [00:04:36] Well here's my basic thinking on this. If you're concerned about privacy with the Echo and Google Home, why are you carrying around an internet-connected microphone in your pocket all the time? Come on, give me a break.


Tim O'Reilly: [00:04:52] You know, if somebody's going to hack the Echo or Google Home to listen in on you, your TV ... there's TVs being sold that can listen to you. Phone systems that could be hacked to listen to you. And, in particular, every single cell phone has a microphone in it that could be hacked to listen all the time. So yes, these things are set up to be listening for that cue word, but they're not listening all the time. And this reminds me a lot of the fears from the early days of the internet: "oh, you could possibly put a credit card onto a website. It would be crazy." The idea that people who are carrying around a device that tracks their location in real time, and uploads it not just to Google or Apple with their Maps app, but uploads it to every cell carrier...cell carrier knows exactly where you are all the time...and then, they're worried that somebody might hack into this speaker, and listen in on them? Come on, we're living in a world of such persistent surveillance that if we don't trust our providers, we are, I guess, a few bricks short of a load.


Tim O'Reilly: [00:06:08] Now that doesn't mean that there aren't real risks. But let's be real about what the risks are. They are companies using our data against us, and not of this....I mean, again, yes, we are increasingly living in a world of systems that can and will be hacked. So there's a whole set of security questions that have to be tackled seriously by the vendors. But just the fear of it as a novel kind of device being scarier than things that we already take for granted...that's where I kind of go 'come on. Get over it.'


Bradley Metrock: [00:06:46] Sure. Well, people scare easily, Tim. So these type of things need to be discussed. But yeah, I'm right there with you. I think that's a beautiful thing about Amazon in many ways leading the way in that they are such a trusted company to so many, because so many people touch them from a customer service standpoint that they've cultivated a unique trust that allowed them to sort of lead the market. So, anyway, it's good to hear your thoughts on that.


Bradley Metrock: [00:07:14] You wrote recently in a post - it was fascinating; we're going to link to it in the show notes - "whenever one thing becomes commodified, something else becomes valuable." And that's pretty keen insight, and it's very applicable to what's going on in voice technology. You know, smart speakers...everybody's coming out with a smart speaker. If you have a shingle outside your office, you're coming out with a smart speaker in 2018. And so, the valuable part becomes how to take advantage of the processing and the developments under the hood that have taken place. And the question for you is are we watching the dot-com boom all over again? From where you sit - your very unique vantage point on tech - what do you think we're in for with the rise of voice technology, in general? And where are we headed in the next few years?


Tim O'Reilly: [00:08:05] Well first off, I would say that yes, it's quite clear that the hardware is going to be something of a commodity. But I think that there's clearly going to be winners and losers in the smart speaker race. And you know there's going to be niches. I mean, for example, you know there's a niche for higher audio quality for people who mostly want to listen to music. And that may be that it's quite possible that the people who make music systems will do a good job of doing that, or maybe they'll take the path of integrating with the Echo or Google Home or whatever. I think the idea that you'll build a successful business just building a speaker...probably not. It's a feature. The voice platform is what matters. And then, the voice applications.


Tim O'Reilly: [00:08:52] We haven't yet, really, I think seen the voice applications of the future. And, you know, what I mean by that is that often the breakthroughs in technology take time to accumulate. Look at something like Uber and Lyft - you know, this ability to summon a car.


Bradley Metrock: [00:09:12] OK.


Tim O'Reilly: [00:09:12] There's a guy named Sunil Paul who patented all the ideas that were to become Uber and Lyft in 2000. But not enough people had smartphones and we were the investors who had backed the idea and those things were just part of the of the model. Think about it: you have to have ubiquitous GPS, with a critical mass of people carrying phones, both potential drivers and potential passengers. You have to have ability to take payments seamlessly over the net, without heavy overhead. You had to have the breakthrough in a business model that didn't say 'oh yeah, you know, we're going to work with the taxi companies,' you know, like Taxi Magic - the first start-up in this space. You have all these different things that come together, and then somebody says 'oh my gosh, this really works.' So I look, for example, at the rise of AR - augmented reality - as this next emergent wave of technology. And then you think about speech in that context. You know, I'm thinking about the first-generation HoloLens, and I'm kind of making these funny gestures to pick from a virtual keyboard. And I go "come on. I just want to talk to this damn thing."


Tim O'Reilly: [00:10:29] And we're going to be wearing, whether it's the next generation of HoloLens, or the next generation Google Glass, or Snap Spectacles...we're going to talk to it, I'm sorry! We're not going to be typing on a keyboard. And increasingly, we're going to be in a world where there are a lot of actions for which just talking to your devices - really, talking to your house, talking with your room, talking to your car - is going to be the natural way that you access information services. And HoloLens, for example, has done a great job of kind of going 'OK, what we're really doing is recreating the set of virtual overlays, and you can have different screens, different spaces, and orient it in whatever way you want.' Where you can kind of be looking at the real world, you can kind of go 'OK, but now I'm in this information space, and I'm looking effectively at virtual screens.' But you also could see this being simply a feature of a physical, built environment - an office. All these pieces are going to arrive, and then one day, we'll see that the world is just very different. Somebody's going to come through with a real breakthrough product - Echo was a breakthrough product - but there's going to be just a real level beyond that, in the same way that the iPhone, you know, kind of broke open the smartphone market. And it will be somewhere, I think, in that conjunction of ambient AR and ambient voice.


Bradley Metrock: [00:11:53] I look forward to that. As has been well-documented on some of our shows, at different times, children today are growing up interacting with voice-first devices and becoming acclimated to an expectation they can and they should be able to do that. You know, my wife and I have a five-year-old son, and he's quite comfortable telling Alexa - when he's allowed to - to turn on Nature Cat. You know, and play Nature Cat, or play Daniel Tiger, or whatever. Or ask the weather.


Tim O'Reilly: [00:12:28] Oh yeah. It is so interesting because when you think about something like that, I think of an interaction seeing my daughter and my grandson, where he's sort of shouting, "Alexa! Set volume to 11!" and then she's like "Alexa, set volume to 6." And you start thinking oh, what's one of the steps in a conversational understanding, of these two speakers, this voice has authority over the other voice.


Bradley Metrock: [00:13:00] Sure.


Tim O'Reilly: [00:13:00] That's kind of this thing that we haven't even really begun to think about, and build in - that, you know, if you have multiple people talking to this device, who does it listen to? Watching kids and parents is a great way to kind of have that insight.


Bradley Metrock: [00:13:14] It is. And there's actually a fascinating new Amazon commercial for the Echo Show, which sort of scratches the surface of that. Do you own an Echo Show, by the way?


Tim O'Reilly: [00:13:25] I don't. You know, it's funny, because I bought Echo Look, and it was so disappointing, that I didn't actually go and get the Show.


Bradley Metrock: [00:13:32] Interesting. Interesting. Yeah, well I think the Echo Look - you hadto...I think you had to have access to that. I mean I'm sure you could know, make a call to Amazon, and they'll send you one, but I don't know if had been available. But the Echo need to try that. You need to do that. Because it' more than almost anybody else on the planet would appreciate the technology of the Echo Show - it's a magical device. And I'm not former Amazon, I'm not current Amazon, you know...I just own one, and I've been able to see it. It's amazing. Especially talking about, as we did just now, as well as before the show, about the intersection of voice and different technologies, such as AR...this is not that. This is just the intersection of voice with a screen - with a touch-screen - a voice first device. And it's very obvious to see deeper glimpses into the future that you just described, through the device.


Tim O'Reilly: [00:14:32] OK great.


Bradley Metrock: [00:14:34] Check that out!


Tim O'Reilly: [00:14:34] I'll take your advice.


Bradley Metrock: [00:14:37] Please do. You'll enjoy it.


Bradley Metrock: [00:14:38] So, shifting gears: your career in business, and really in tech, has been built on books. From studying them, in college, to writing them, and publishing them. However, these days, most people don't read books, and this has been well-documented, and there's a lot of different reasons, from educational institutional problems to substitutes. You know, on the internet, people just read more long-form articles. In your mind, is this just a natural ebb and flow? Are we just out of books? Are books out of vogue for the moment? Are they going to come back? And where does voice technology fit in to the picture? You were talking about intersection of voice with different technologies - well, here's a technology: it's called a book. What do you see for books and voice?


Tim O'Reilly: [00:15:27] Well a couple of things. First off, I would say it's not actually true that I am so deeply involved in publishing. Yes, that's where I got my start. And it's still a part of my business. But I've been basically...many years ago, I realized that my fundamental business is learning things from people at the cutting edge, and sharing it with people who want to follow them. And that led us into doing events, which is now a bigger part of our business than publishing, and into building a large online learning platform, which includes not just, you know, tens of thousands of e-books, but tens of thousands of hours of video training. We're really a technology transfer company and a sort of self-directed learning company. Just to be clear about that. If you go to, you really kind of understand that our platform is really at the heart - our learning platform - is really the heart of what we do today.


Tim O'Reilly: [00:16:16] But that being said, you think about learning in the age of voice. YouTube is probably the pre-eminent learning platform on the planet today, because it's a marketplace for people who know how to do something. I think about YouTube videos that I consult periodically - it's like "oh yeah, how was it again that you do that incredible braiding technique for a long electrical cord?" And you watch the video. One of the things I'm frustrated by is the videos are often too long, got too much extra content in the the way that I think Alexa started to teach us the right way to build voice interfaces, you know, we're going to need to have new kinds of content that are responding much more intelligently and conversationally to this idea. This is just a question someone asked - let's get them to the answer as quickly as possible. And we'll see, in the same way that text started to optimize for taking you right to the answer, these kind of voice queries will also take you right to the answer. And so this really becomes knowledge-on-demand. But that being said, books aren't going away. I mean, there's a lot of evidence that actually sales of print books have not only stabilized, that they've kind of gone back up a little bit.


Bradley Metrock: [00:17:32] Sure.


Tim O'Reilly: [00:17:32] I think that it's important to realize that books have always been the advocation of a small percentage of the population. And they were an imposition on the rest.


Bradley Metrock: [00:17:46] Interesting.


[00:17:46] If you look at...I still remember - this is many, many years ago, in Newton, Massachusetts - I was renovating this old barn. And I was having this carpenter put in bookshelves - the entire length of the wall. And he was like "how can you possibly need this many bookshelves?" He couldn't, you know...just didn't make any sense to him. He'd never read a book. You know, that's true of so many people. You have to realize that there were many people who read books, for example, in school, because they had to. They were forced to. To me, reading online...I mean, I certainly read way more magazine-length content than I ever used to. I used to subscribe to magazines, and never picked them up, because I tend to prefer books. And I've kind of gotten back, actually, in recent years...actually, I missed books. And I'm reading a lot more again, because I'm going "hey, I want that the longer, extended argument that I was missing." But again, even there, one of the strongest growing categories in books is audiobooks. And what is, in fact, a podcast, but a kind of audiobook.


Bradley Metrock: [00:18:52] Sure.


Tim O'Reilly: [00:18:53] When I think of something like, you know, there's obviously the long-running, perpetual podcast...then it's the one-off podcast...but there's also interesting series, like Alexis Madrigal did an eight-part series on container shipping. And it's called "Containers" - a great, great podcast. It's the equivalent of a book! And guess what? He's turning it into a book.


Tim O'Reilly: [00:19:13] All of these forms of media are ways of doing a job. What we really have to understand is what job are you doing? I used to give talks to publishers about this, and I would say 'look, the job I do is educating people about new technology, and I can do it in all these different ways, and I'm going to offer it to customers in all these different ways.' You know, if you publish fiction, you're competing with computer game developers. You know, your choice of "World of Warcraft" or "Harry Potter" ... actually maybe both those products appeal to the same person. It's such a mistake to get caught up in these narrow categories of delivery mechanism, rather than understanding what job you do for your customers.


Bradley Metrock: [00:20:00] I would completely agree with that, and obviously that's something that, with O'Reilly Media, you've taken to heart. And, you know, just following your business career has been big for me, because what I'm doing with my company mirrors, in many ways, what you've a small way, mirrors what you've done with yours. We've got a conference business. We've got different vehicles for communicating and transferring information, like you were speaking about. That's fascinating to hear you talk about that.


Bradley Metrock: [00:20:26] Let me ask you one more question here, and it's that...a common theme of the shows that we have on VoiceFirst.FM - and it comes up all the time - is that the tech world, right now, to optimize, to maximize, movement toward voice-first computing needs more talent with liberal arts backgrounds. Linguistics, psychology, et cetera. And you yourself studied classics in college, so you're a pretty good example. Do you agree with that thought? And what would you tell young people who will be listening to this podcast? You know, high school students, college students, grad school students - what they need to be learning, and studying, in order to be part of this in the future?


Tim O'Reilly: [00:21:05] Let me just say it's not really what you study - it's what you care about.


Bradley Metrock: [00:21:11] Sure.


Tim O'Reilly: [00:21:12] Because if you care about interesting topics, you will follow them. The thing that I think is so important to understand about education is that it is fundamentally about encouraging people to build almost like a personal culture of learning. To find ideas that become useful to you. To find ideas that become meaningful to you. To find things that are beautiful to you. And build from that a story about the world that is your own.


Tim O'Reilly: [00:21:42] So much of what we think of as learning is canned knowledge. And we don't need canned knowledge anymore - it's all at our fingertips. What we need is we need to understand what resources are out there, and we need to have new kinds of fundamentals of the skills to acquire that knowledge when we need it. But mostly, we need curiosity and we need to engender a love of topics. You know, I love ideas and I love learning new things. We need our education to spit out a generation of kids for whom learning is fun. You know, it's what you do, and it's natural. You don't think of it as a chore.


Bradley Metrock: [00:22:27] No this is great, Tim. I appreciate this. I appreciate you setting this time aside to join us on The VoiceFirst Roundtable.


Bradley Metrock: [00:22:36] On October 10, you've got a book coming out. It's called WTF: What's The Future And Why It's Up To Us. You need to stop what you're doing right now, go on Amazon, hit the preorder link for that, and purchase that so you'll have it the day it comes out. Share with us a little bit about the book.


Tim O'Reilly: [00:22:53] I chose the title WTF because WTF is an expression of amazement or dismay, and it can be either. It's like you're looking at something and, you know, you go "WTF!" I think of this amazing photograph: it was actually a giant photo mural in the Sydney airport in Australia.


Bradley Metrock: [00:23:13] OK.


Tim O'Reilly: [00:23:13] I forget when it was that the first airplane came to Australia...and the look of wonder on the faces of thousands of people who turned out to see this plane come, you know, across the ocean, to their far shore, was so amazing. And now, of course, you have the WTF of dismay when you see a passenger dragged off United Airlines, right?


Tim O'Reilly: [00:23:37] This is our our set of choices with technology. They can be a source of amazement; they can be a source of dismay. That's why the title is "why it's up to us." "What's The Future, And Why It's Up To Us.


Tim O'Reilly: [00:23:50] The book is really a meditation on what we learn from the great technology platforms about the future of the economy. And one of the key things that we learn is that these platforms...really, they can't just serve their users. They have to actually create a rich ecosystem of suppliers. Part of the reason that Microsoft became less dominant was that they kind of ate the ecosystem. It was no longer a place of opportunity. So people went over there and the opportunity became the internet. And so one of the things for example at O'Reilly that we've always focused on is, you know, one of our slogans is create more value than you capture. How we applied that in our own business, for example, is why we migrated away from publishing when all these competitors just sort of just watched the market shrink, shrink, shrink...because we said we have to serve our customers. We also have to serve our authors. And so, we of the things that we realized that writing an O'Reilly book was a way of credentialing somebody as an expert, and that they could then use that elsewhere in their career. It wasn't just what they got from the economics of the book. And so we said OK, how else can we promote people? And we realized that conferences was not only consistent with what we did of bringing in knowledge, but it was also a way to feature our talent and to give them new ways of being, you know, certified as experts.


Tim O'Reilly: [00:25:13] And so one of the big risks in these platforms is that they say well, it's good for the users - you know, Google is one that's struggling I think hardest with this right now - it's good for the users if we just deliver this information directly. But at some point, all those people, these companies that you have...whose service you have now sort-of 'Borg-ed' into your own go away, and the internet is no longer a place of opportunity. And, all of a sudden, Google starts to look more and more like AOL. There'll be new kinds of platforms and services because, fundamentally, Google depends on the ecosystem of people who create content, who create new services, and that Google helps them find. Google stops being the enabler of that ecosystem, which has two sides - has suppliers and consumers. And if it just says well we'll be the only supplier...same thing with Amazon, if they start competing with more and more of their sellers, the marketplace becomes less vibrant.


Tim O'Reilly: [00:26:17] And I basically look at that, and I draw some conclusions from the economy because our economy is really also dominated by platforms, whether it's the way that government operates, or the way that financial markets operate. And when those ... people focus a lot on how government you know takes too much, at least in our political discourse. I think that's actually not true. And the government is is inefficient, and needs to be made to work a lot better. But we get a lot for what we pay. And we could get more.


Tim O'Reilly: [00:26:51] But I look at financial markets which now take 25 percent of all corporate profits, with only 4 percent of employment, and go 'something seems a little out of whack there!' Here was this industry that was a platform industry, that was an enabler for the rest of the industry. And now, you know, companies are saying 'well, we can't afford to pay our workers - we have to give the money...we have to use the money for share buybacks.


Bradley Metrock: [00:27:20] Sure.


Tim O'Reilly: [00:27:21] So to make our stock go up. I mean, that's crazy.


Tim O'Reilly: [00:27:24] You know, we've seen this vast diversion of investment away from the real economy. You know, like retraining people, paying people know, just even hiring people...all in service of increasing corporate profits, which are already at an all-time high, to please Wall Street. So I actually have this one sort of idea in my book that in some ways Wall Street has become the first rogue AI.


Bradley Metrock: [00:27:50] That's interesting!


Tim O'Reilly: [00:27:53] Yeah.


Bradley Metrock: [00:27:53] No, that's great. And I'll very much look forward to checking it out. So much of a metaphor with what you were saying, you know, about creating ecosystems and creating opportunity that way that applies to voice and the voice landscape. WTF: What's The Future And Why It's Up To Us. Tim, thank you very much for joining us. It was a pleasure.


Tim O'Reilly: [00:28:11] Great to talk with you, too.


Bradley Metrock: [00:28:13] For The VoiceFirst Roundtable, thanks for listening...and until next time. 

[exit music]

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