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This New Voice Assistant Wants to Give Alexa and Google a Run for Their Money

By now, most of us are used to talking to Siri, Alexa and Google, but former Black Eyed Peas frontman-cum-tech-entrepreneur will.i.am hopes you’ll soon be deep in conversation with the new AI sheriff in town: Omega.

At the sixth annual Sourcing Summit in New York City on Oct. 11, the L.A. native video-called in from his hotel room in London to spread the gospel of an artificial intelligence assistant developed not within the walled gardens of an Apple or an Amazon or a Google but purpose-built for enterprise, with the goal of rebalancing the scales in favor of industries all too reliant on the tech giants that seemingly run the world.

In some ways, the problem is simple: people don’t have their own operating system, will.i.am said, and neither do brick-and-mortar retailers. Which is to say, some of the most popular AI assistants are designed to capture users in their ecosystems—Alexa beholden to Amazon, for example—rather than holistically serving the individual.

Omega is both an conversational, voice-first, AI-powered infrastructure platform and a device, according to will.i.am’s company, i.am+, co-founded with Chandra Rathakrishnan, who serves as president. And if the Omega demo is to believed, it can do some pretty nifty things. While some AI assistants struggle with contextual relevance, Omega seems to have a leg up on the competition. Ask it to play a Bruno Mars song and blast out one of hits many hits; then ask “what’s going on with him?—without restating the specific name “Bruno Mars”—and Omega calls up the latest news articles on the singer, and will begin reading any piece you’re interested in. Without missing a beat, the digital assistant responds to a query about the artist’s next concert with relevant results and adds to your calendar upon request.

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The demo also showed Omega’s skill in shouldering mundane tasks like calling a restaurant to make a reservation, though in the age of Open Table and Resy, it’s unclear whether that’s really the pressing issue we need to solve. And it begs the question: if you answer the phone and hear a robotic voice on the other end of the line, would you hang up, assuming you’d been prank or robo-called?

Like any good AI assistant, Omega can build your shopping cart for you. If you ask for socks but don’t like the brand Omega picked, you can request a different label—something Siri and friends currently can’t do, will.i.am insisted.

i.am+ is officially partnered up with Salesforce, a deal designed to gives retailers and other businesses a turnkey voice-first system, including hardware and software, for forging deeper, natural-language-based relationships with their customers. Industry leaders like Kering already have joined a consortium of businesses that recognize the “power of companies coming together,” will.i.am said, noting that Omega’s brandless AI better matches the aesthetics of a brand like the luxury conglsomerate’s Gucci.

Voice assistants, and their potential to drive commerce, are one of the most highly hyped innovations at the intersection tech and retail. The data points on where the voice commerce landscape actually is are all over the map. By no means is shopping by voice a huge factor in e-commerce at the moment but a report by The Information generated shockwaves across the industry with the assertion that a scant 2 percent of Alexa device owners have placed a purchase through the AI assistant this year.

Still, MoffettNathanson’s Greg Melich likened current voice shopping trends to where mobile commerce was 10 years ago, in an April article published by TheStreet. “If you’re a retailer and you’re not preparing for this significant trend of e-commerce going toward v-commerce, then you won’t be around.”

will.i.am echoed that urgency. “Data is power,” he said, adding that most retailers are behind the curve because everyone else—ie, the Facebooks and Googles of the world—owns their data right now. What happened yesterday isn’t necessarily the best predictor of future trials and challenges, he added.

“The store is now in your house,” he said of the ubiquity of remote commerce. “The store is not going to be a store tomorrow.

With all of the changes upending retail, even the idea of competition is evolving and rewriting the script on the shopping. Is Target looking at Walmart as its competitor, or is everyone just trying to survive against Amazon? Regardless of the answer, will.iam pressed retailers to invest in voice technologies before their business succumbs to obsolescence.

“You don’t know who your competition is, so hurry the [profanity] up,” he concluded.