I ran across this Medium post by tech futurist Michael Spencer the other day. In it, Spencer claims that websites are about to disappear because of AI-powered voice assistants, like Alexa. (It’s pretty short, I suggest you take a moment to at least scan it before reading on, here). It wasn’t all that long ago that some technology experts were prophesying for the death of websites, because every company and organization would have a Facebook presence, instead. Seemed ludicrous then, and time has proven that prediction to be nothing more than hyperbole.
I find this current forecast to be seriously exaggerated as well. Websites aren’t going to go away, simply because voice assistants need data in order to answer queries. Where will that data come from, if there are no websites? If Spencer believes that organizations are going to allow these types of devices to directly search back end databases, then he has no clue about how those work or the necessary security involved. Even if one postulates that the data is coming from Google’s search index, that still begs the question of where the data comes from to fill Google’s coffers. Websites, that’s where.
However, the writer of this post is confusing two different issues. Spencer goes on to focus not on the disappearance of websites, but on how people may access information:
Fast forward to 2022, and Amazon, Google, Apple, Tencent and others will be “everywhere” with universal Voice-interfaces and “screens”, video and AI on demand. Why will we need to browse websites or download apps, that’s so old-school.
This is where I believe Spencer gains traction in reality. I am not personally a fan of smart speakers, but I’m not blind. At least 20% of Americans own one of these devices already (and that doesn’t even take into account voice-activated AIs on smartphones). Depending on which research institute you believe, the number of voice searches is expected to rise to account for 30-50% of all searches in the next several years. What we’re seeing, though, is not a change in the existence of websites: it’s a change in interface.
Spencer is confusing the back end (where the data lives) with the front end (how that data is accessed). We need to get past this confusion: the front end is where we all need to start paying some heavy attention. How do library websites function, if someone makes a query from an AI-powered device? What happens when keyboards and touch screens aren’t in play?
We’re beginning the process of investigating this within our own agency, and for our website clients. We know there is a lot of work to be done, but we can see the proverbial train coming down the tunnel. I encourage you, also, to consider what’s happening in the AI/voice assistant space, and the speed at which this change is coming. Don’t wait until the train is already here.