Data Types

Hey, Data Experts: Voice Assistants Are Calling Your Name

Data professionals connected back-office applications to voice assistants. Here’s what they learned.

By Jeff Erickson

September/October 2018

If you can ask Apple Siri or Amazon Alexa to search databases for restaurants and obscure bands, why can’t you ask them to search or update the databases of your enterprise resource planning (ERP) or human resources (HR) applications?

This question, or something like it, crossed the minds of Jorge Rimblas and Christoph Ruepprich—both of whom are database developers and Oracle ACEs. But as data professionals, the question wasn’t academic. They each took the initiative to answer the question and learned lessons along the way.

“It’s a great time to be a database developer,” says Rimblas, who has worked with Oracle Database since 1995. “But you have to keep learning,” he says. Rimblas spent his early years as a database developer learning to write efficient SQL queries and wrapping his mind around large data models. He’s now polishing his abilities with REST services, plumbing JavaScript libraries, and sharing projects on GitHub.

Rimblas wanted to know if he could make interacting with back-office applications easier, or even fun, by using a voice assistant. He learned that he can. Rimblas created a proof of concept for his company by connecting Alexa to its timekeeping and billing application, which had been built internally using Oracle Application Express (Oracle APEX).

“I can just ask Alexa what client jobs I’m working on and she’ll tell me, or I can ask her to add hours to a job and she’ll do it,” he reports. “If I tell her I’m done for the day, she’ll give a happy reply, or if I tell her to add hours to my vacation time she’ll update the app and say, ‘Yay; enjoy your vacation!’”

“You’re not touching a keyboard, but you’re finding information and updating information in your work application,” he says. Now he can focus on client work and dispense with timekeeping and billing tasks by speaking a few words to a voice assistant. “It’s a really nice way to work.”

For Rimblas, the process of connecting Alexa to his application meant using Oracle APEX and Oracle REST Data Services to retrieve and present data to Alexa’s developer framework. “I did it all through the browser with Oracle APEX on one side and Alexa’s testing framework on the other,” he says. “I didn’t even need an Alexa device,” he adds.

Bot Wait

Along with the growing interest in voice interfaces, there’s a demand in the enterprise for both voice- and text-based bots. Oracle Intelligent Bots in Oracle Autonomous Mobile Cloud, for example, embeds intelligent bots in voice assistants such as Alexa and Siri and surfaces bots in messaging platforms such as Facebook Messenger and WeChat.

Rimblas noted that a developer can also use AWS Lambda along with Node.js or JavaScript to get to the database, “but Oracle REST Data Services is directly connected to the database, so I don’t have to make another hop to get to the data.” Knowing SQL and Oracle Database made the Alexa proof of concept work go quickly because Rimblas could efficiently manage the database side.

A Gazillion Things You Can Do with Voice Assistants

Christoph Ruepprich feels that working with voice assistants is a natural extension of the DBA and database development work he’s done most of his career and shares on his popular blog. “When Alexa came along, I just naturally saw that this is yet another way to access the data,” he recalls.

To work with voice assistants, Ruepprich simply combined his knowledge of Node.js (which he had learned at an ODTUG Kscope meeting and has been using ever since) with the SQL, Oracle APEX, and REST services he uses for other development projects. “It’s a perfect fit,” he says of using a voice assistant. “I can simply access my database and ask it questions.”

His prototypes have been a success, he says, and now he’s looking for a bigger project to apply his knowledge to. “There are a gazillion things you can do with a voice assistant,” he says. “It can call up a screen, read back some results, or trigger actions in the application.” It is, he says, a perfect approach for situations where people have their hands busy. “If someone is working for an airline and they’re working on an airplane and they need a part, they can say, ‘Hey Alexa, do we have this part in stock? Can I have it brought out to me on the shop floor?’” he says. “Or show me the schematics for this or that.”

“You always want to find the best way of getting the data to the user,” Ruepprich concludes. He credits his knowledge of SQL and PL/SQL with helping him quickly build effective voice apps, “because if you don’t know how to work with the database, that’s where the bottlenecks happen,” he says. “If you don’t write efficient SQL, your great app isn’t going to work as well as you want.”

Next Steps

LEARN more about Oracle Application Express.

LEARN more about Oracle Intelligent Bots.

TRY Oracle Intelligent Bots.

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