Beyond Digits - Voices in the Second Machine Age
Amazon’s unanticipated success with Echo – try getting hold of one at the moment! – has begun an interesting new line of thought based on the idea of “voice as a platform”. The argument goes that typing is a clumsy and clunky way of interfacing with machines, far inferior to just being able to talk in your natural voice to them. Perhaps, the logic suggests, typing will come to be seen as a brief and transitory period in the evolution of hominum ex machina.
In the next period of evolution – literally beyond digits – the sci-fi vision of Star Trek and Space Odyssey will come true. Although Spock does seem on occasion to type on his terminal, Kirk more often than not barks something into the ether and things seem to happen! Of course, Dave and Hal are on speaking terms – until the end! And Jarvis doesn’t wait for an email or a text to save Iron Man’s bacon, time and time again!
Maybe, one day, typing will become as rare as writing with a pen is now! Perhaps, like me, you can hardly write on paper nowadays at all; it seems so difficult, and tiring! I don’t think I’ve written more than 50 words on paper now for years. Would our 1st Grade teachers have imagined that 45 years ago?
The idea of voice as the dominant computer interface is gaining traction as the notion of “bots not apps” gains steam. http://econ.st/1ROJ203 In recent weeks, more and more of the tech illuminati have been road-testing their new vision of AI based services existing in the device agnostic cloud helping us do things such as tell someone we’re running late because of traffic, buy shoes we’ve seen in a road side advert from the train, or set up a new meeting to discuss an idea you’ve just thought of at the gym. All by simply speaking to Alexa, or Siri, or Dragon, or Amy, or Cortana, or M. Or by them doing it automatically for us.
Although in its infancy, this is an important trend; one to follow closely, methinks.
Before we all get too far into where this idea will go over the medium term though, there is an aspect of it which particularly tickles me. Namely the roll of “voice” in this potential new “era of voice”.
According to many studies (a recent one here http://bit.ly/1Y5acDT) the world’s favorite accent is British. (Now you can see where I’m going with this and why it tickles me!) By a very wide margin the British voice is regarded as numero uno (!) by folks north, south, east and west. In countries that have always been British allies, countries that have been opponents in war, and in countries that were former colonies. By everyone!!!
As a Englishman who’s lived in America for coming on 17 years now, the truth of this is something I’ve seen time and time again. When I came to the strange land of my dreams http://bit.ly/1QYD2Vj I had heard reports of Americans saying to random English strangers “gee, I love your accent” but dismissed them as ridiculous exaggerated clichés. But actually it happens all the time! My H&R Block tax preparer said it to me last month!
When I landed in San Francisco in the 1999 code rush, a wise Brit who had already been here 20 years whispered in my ear, “I’ve figured out there’s a 25% premium for having a British accent in America”. I took his advice to heart and though my lovely English rose sounds more and more like Anglo-American curio Loyd Grossman http://theatln.tc/1IwJhg6 nowadays, I have maintained my received pronunciation http://bit.ly/1NSiSgt with a vengeance! (My critics would probably suggest it accounts for 100% of the “success” I’ve had in America!)
So the question in my mind is what does this mean for the “British voice” when “voice” is the de facto way of working with our new machines? Is the accent of a voice more, or less, important? Given that we will presumably choose the voice that talks to us (as you can already in Waze http://bit.ly/1rR1cs3) will more people chose to have an English robot assistant (“Carson as a Service” as my colleague Rob Brown calls it!) or will they prefer to have Samantha http://bit.ly/1mAcxBU at their beck and call?
If the English voice becomes the international “voice of business” as the English language has become the international “language of business”, presumably this conveys some advantage to England, non? (!) Or does the advantage diminish because of the software generated ubiquity of it? If kids in Shengzu or Lima or Dodama use the Jarvis setting on Echo does the allure of “Englishness” – that so captivated Loyd Grosman through the technology of plastic – draw them to favor the UK, culturally and economically, in ways that are both easy and hard to imagine? Or does “English” continue to mutate into “Globlish” http://bit.ly/1rR4JGT with a diffusion of its power as its core DNA becomes harder and harder to trace?
What benefit or cost accrues to Englishman like me in this new global order? Reports from the Globlish front line suggest that English as a Foreign Language (EFL) speakers prefer speaking to other EFL speakers rather than “real” English speakers. Will their “accent interface” (i.e. an EFL type one) overtake the need for my “RP” version?
Though these may be somewhat abstract (and I imagine some thinking, trivial) notions, I do think there is something important at the heart of these considerations. As technology permeates every aspect of our world and our lives – in ways visible and invisible – through IoT, wearables, AR, and VR, the onus on manufactures and developers will be to adapt technology to suit people, not as has been the case for the initial waves of computing, for people to adapt to suit technology. Humanizing technology will be a critical differentiator between success and failure in the next generations of consumer and enterprise technology. The rise of “design thinking” is testament to this truth.
The voice – as one of the five primary senses – is therefore at the crux of this humanization. The voice interface on my Bavarian motor car is hardly human at all. But in time it will be and the commercial spoils will fall to those who can win this race.
What role “Englishness” plays in this is, I suppose, mainly interesting to Brits like me. But there are clues in these developments as to the shape “computing” will take in the Second Machine Age.
Until voice is superseded by “thought as a platform”. But that’s for another time!