Just a day back, I was fortunate enough to buy the hard-to-find, newly launched and so called ‘magical’ device from Apple called the AirPods. Here I sit now in a Thai restaurant in Toronto on a surprisingly warm day for February sipping some lovely lemon ginger tea and listening to some soft rock while wondering how far bluetooth headphones have come since the days I bought my first pair in 2010, a set of Philips MW 600 earphones, which are by the way still working and reliable though out of my favour. Being one of the most technologically advanced pair of headsets one can buy (or probably find considering how short they are in supply) right now in the market, AirPods and the underlying technologies like Siri by Apple have multiple far reaching use cases across diverse spaces, including payments.
Now you might be wondering what the hell I’m talking about connecting headphones with payments. But if you are like me who is always in search for the next big thing that could be disrupted with technology and have tried all, if not most, of the current payment models, be it cash, online transfer, credit, debit, or mobile wallets, NFC, or even RFID, then you would be wondering what’s next in this ubiquitous yet still broken system of trade. Even though it’s been just a day since I got my AirPods, the thing that excites me the most about it is the instant availability of Siri, Apple’s voice assistant, and I believe it has lot of potential in the payments space.
For some, I might look like a dork using it to make payments in public but I believe it’s just a matter of time before everyone starts using voice assistants for every task and for a perspective don’t we all speak in public, at least for a decent amount of time? The only odd thing about talking to voice assistants in public is that we are putting everything out in the open unlike earlier when some, if not all, of us, were conscious of our privacy. But isn’t that changing since Google? Funny that Google is used here as a time stamp but hasn’t Google changed the technology space forever? It’s a whole different topic that we can tackle for some other time. For now, I believe we should all embrace the fact that privacy is something that’s least secured now and soon one shouldn’t be so surprised to see someone asking Siri to make a payment for like Coffee at Starbucks. It might not be so bad for something as small as coffee but imagine if you are buying something expensive like a laptop or jewellery and some, if not most, of us could be little conscious of revealing the price out publicly. It’s a behavioural change that would take more time to embrace than tapping with a phone or a watch on a point of sale (POS) terminal. However, I believe voice authenticated payments is the most logical and evolutionary stage of payments in the future and for all the following reasons.
For one, fingerprint authentication is already becoming more prevalent than one could guess as most of our phones are now fingerprint-scan enabled and developing countries like India are already using fingerprint authentication for various payment and public welfare schemes. A combination of voice and fingerprint authentication could be the most secure way of paying for something as it can better the current two-step authentications used across various processes. However, how intuitively it is implemented, how fast and easy it is in comparison to current modes of payment and how the public is educated about it are just some of the things that will either make it or break it.
For instance, let me give you an example of how a government policy decision to withdraw and replace almost 86% of its currency that’s in circulation overnight resulted in probably one of the biggest and fastest adoption of digital mode of payments across a billion population. It’s probably a rare, once in a lifetime experience for anyone to suddenly have no cash in hand or get to terms that the cash they have will soon be defunct and to rely entirely on online modes of payment for at least two months or stand in line outside an ATM like this. Now imagine how a nation that has more than 60% of its population in rural areas with hardly any suitable payment infrastructure and one that is heavily dependent on cash coped with such a change. Even though the chances of a similar move happening in a developed country like Canada or US is next to none, this move showed me what works and what doesn’t when there is an effort to change the behaviour patterns of a consumer, especially in paying for something.
There was hardly enough education or infrastructure readily available to cope up with this massive change but somehow, surprisingly, a billion people could not just embrace it but leapfrog current technologies like credit and debit entirely. I saw roadside vendors put up signs that they are accepting PayTM, a mobile wallet in India that enables vendors to collect money from customers while giving them the ability to debit/credit the money to their bank accounts. Months before this move, the federal government announced a facility to link up bank accounts and Aadhar card, something which is akin to Social Security Number (SSN) and Social Insurance Number (SIN) in US and Canada, respectively. This enabled people to make payments using their Aadhar number while authenticating a transaction using their fingerprint. India leapfrogged not just years but decades of technology and sometimes such big changes needed some hard measures and it worked, mostly. I say mostly because without enough infrastructure and education, people would usually go back to their old habits like some of my countrymen are currently doing by using cash as the primary mode of payment even when they could continue using more latest, secure and reliable modes of payments. Maybe it’s the ease of use that makes cash still the fastest way of paying for something. Now ‘ease of use’ depends on lot of factors and what stage of payment you take into account (pre, in process and post payment stages are usually what makes up of a payment lifecycle). But cash has a certain different mojo to it and I see how and why it always comes back to use. However, for the benefit of our society and for our responsibilities within this society, I believe each one of us should embrace modes of payment that are easily tracked, monitored and serviceable.
This is where I believe voice assisted payments has an extra leg over current payment modes as I believe each one of our voices has a unique signature and tone to it and one that would be tough to replicate, especially when used in combination with our fingerprints. Also, the ease of use with which one can potentially make a payment by initiating a transaction with a voice assistant, which will soon be used almost as ubiquitously as a smartphone is right now, is much more appealing than tapping a smartphone/smartwatch on a POS terminal or scanning a QR code or entering unique IDs like Aadhar or SIN. Furthermore, seeing how Alexa from Amazon, Google Now from Google and Siri from Apple are slowly becoming active in most of our daily yet simple tasks like checking the weather, getting directions, making appointments and playing our favourite music, I wouldn’t be so surprised if one day we might completely shut our phones away and use ‘specialist’ devices that cater to only certain niche tasks like making a payment with your smartwatch while authenticating the transaction with your heartbeat and voice on AirPods or asking Siri on your tablet to engage with a customer service bot to track your recent order on Amazon and getting a gentle tap reminder on your Apple Watch when its nearby or having your Facebook/Instagram news feed on your Snapchat Spectacles with your iris and voice as authentication factors, all powered by voice assistants at the core of them. In simpler terms, imagine a world where all our smart devices, be it tablets, smartwatches, smart glasses, smart earphones or smart jewellery, all powered by a single voice assistant that gets things done for you replacing the need for you to do it. Oh wait! We already live (kind of) in that world. Soon, smartphones will not just shrink but entirely disappear. We are in that transition phase and once voice assistants and AI powering them become strong enough to work consistently, securely and accurately across multiple form factors, we might not need smartphones at all. If I’m right, voice assistants are going to be the next big thing that will entirely change not just how we make payments but also the internet space in total like smartphones did in 2007 and the inter connectivity of devices using smart technologies with voice assistants at the heart of them powering it all will be the real Internet of Things (IoT) that people talk about. We are not so far from that future guys! We already saw this in the movie Her and if you haven’t seen it yet, please go watch our future right now!