There’s an interesting shift happening with our technology as we move from touch based inputs to voice. The Amazon Echo is a huge success (despite it’s terrifying statements), the Google Assistant is getting better and better (although there are privacy concerns) and even Siri is catching up with Apple’s increased investment into the technology. What isn’t said is that it may be changing society around us without us noticing - for the good and the bad.
Accessibility for all
Voice is something that’s incredibly natural for us. Newborns recognize their mother’s voice moments after birth having heard a muffled version of it while in the womb. When we’re faced with extreme situations, we instinctively turn to our voice - screaming and crying for both help and joy.
It’s easy to believe that voice input would remove some of the issues with accessibility that we have screen based user interfaces. No more being concerned with color contrast, font sizes, or missing alt-tags, right? While this may be true for many of us, it unfortunately can’t be accommodating for those who don’t communicate verbally.
Don’t count the deaf and hard of hearing out yet though. Abhishek Singh created a web application that uses a camera to read sign language and translate it into spoken language for an Amazon Echo to understand. When the Echo responses the whole process plays out in reverse and it types out the reply for them to see.
“The project was a thought experiment inspired by observing a trend among companies of pushing voice-based assistants as a way to create instant, seamless interactions,” he told Fast Company. “If these devices are to become a central way we interact with our homes or perform tasks, then some thought needs to be given to those who cannot hear or speak. Seamless design needs to be inclusive in nature.”
It’s inspiring to me how people are adapting these new technologies and working to find ways to make them more inclusive. However, this isn’t the universal norm when it comes to designing solution. The design industry, as a whole, will need to become more intentionally inclusive to accommodate continued growth of the voice input technology environment.
Are we ok with lost privacy?
The most difficult question that remains unanswered is everything surrounding privacy. While the general public is beginning to raise their concerns, we’re still too amazed / awed by the technical progress to clearly see what could be down the road. AI and voice are still too much ‘fun’ for us to consider the potential downsides. It’s almost as if the general consensus is “we’re having a party right now and it’s awesome - let’s think about tomorrow’s problems when we cross that bridge!”
Marriott Hotels are now including Alexa’s in some of their hotels as a way for guests to access room service or make reservations. At first glance, this appears to be a cost-effective and smart choice, but with Alexa’s history of recording conversations, there are those who are beginning to get concerned.
"We don't fully understand the privacy risks we're taking," the senators wrote. "Amazon owes it to the American people to be clearer about what's happening with this technology."
“This is just another way for Alexa to have access to you from your home away from home,” said digital lifestyle expert Carley Knobloch. “This is the new world order and these devices are going to follow us wherever we go now if we're on vacation or maybe at the office, or certainly at home.”
“This is the new world order and these devices are going to follow us where we go now”. Eh, no thank you. You see, we are adults so we can choose how we live our lives. We can make decisions about what is acceptable in terms of privacy and adjust our exposure to the technology, but do you know who can’t choose though?
Kids are drawn to the devices’ voice-activated interfaces and warm, playful tone. New research shows children as young as 1 are interacting with Alexa, Google Assistant, and Siri long before they can type or swipe.
Is voice input teaching us to be disrespectful?
Toy giant Mattel planned AI etiquette features for its short-lived kids’ virtual assistant, Aristotle. Introduced in 2015, the smart speaker would read bedtime stories, soothe crying babies at night, and teach toddlers basics such as the alphabet. To enforce manners, Aristotle would refuse to go along with children’s requests unless they said “please.” While privacy concerns ultimately doomed the Aristotle, the idea of a machine that required respectful communication was a first.
“We love our Amazon Echo. Among other tasks, my four year old finds the knock knock jokes hilarious, the weather captivating, the ability to summon songs comparable to magic and Echo to be the best speller in the house. But I fear it’s also turning our daughter into a raging asshole. Because Alexa tolerates poor manners.”
I believe even if our voice assistants began to demand a ‘please’ or ‘thank you’, they certainly wouldn’t instantly make us a respectful society. In fact, the voice driven technology as it is today may be teaching us to be the exact opposite. It allows us to be too casual. I’ve even noticed this behavior in myself as I’ve been using Siri more with my HomePod and iPhone.
For instance, when I leave my office I say, “Hey Siri, pause the music”. If the command doesn’t get through, I say it again but this time in a louder, more aggressive tone. It’s as if I think she did hear me, but just couldn’t be bothered to perform the task.
That leads to an interesting distinction between voice and touch interactions. If I fail at executing a command through voice, I blame the system. “I know you heard me!” However, when I fail at executing a command through touch, I blame myself. “Am I doing this wrong?”
It’s an interesting road ahead for sure and I’d be interested to hear what you think. Voice input is changing our social norms and influencing the way we interact with our digital environment daily. It has brought the best of us out (striving for inclusion) while also reinforcing some of our less positive personality traits. At times we are even turning a blind eye to privacy concerns! Is it worth it for the convenience? When has it gone too far?