By Robert Hickson 24/08/2016


Ten years ago we were largely communicating with computers through key pads and mice. Then came touch screens, and more recently voice recognition systems such as  Siri, Google Now, and Cortana.

Tim O’Reilly has written a good article on LinkedIn about the voice recognition technology that sits within Amazon’s Echo, and what it signals for the future.

O’Reilly makes the point that it just isn’t the technology, but the design that goes into how it will interact with you (what he calls “human design intelligence”), and that is what Amazon is currently doing better than others. But probably not for long. As with other computational developments, the pace of change is often phenomenal.

Here’s an even-handed video review of the Echo:

It seems to be able to handle a kiwi accent fairly well too, unlike some other voice recognition systems.

Talking to a cylinder to give you a weather forecast, find a recipe, or play music seems a bit whimsical. But in the longer term it’s how we will probably most commonly engage with computers and robots. (Some of us will be doing it just by thinking, too).

A one-sided conversation

I still get perturbed walking down the street and thinking someone is talking to me when they are really going hands free on their phone. We will experience more one sided, possibly imperious, “conversations” in the future when we are out and about. And as more people use such a communication channel, we’ll need to have voice recognition, so when I’m talking to my Alexa it won’t confuse your Alexa (or Siri, Moana, Crispin, Pablo, etc).

Another potential downside is that imperiousness factor. At least one Echo user is concerned that it is teaching his child bad manners. That should be amenable to a simple design tweak though.

What O’Reilly doesn’t mention is that as the way we communicate with computers changes so our relationship with them will probably too. Many users already refer to their Echo as a “she” rather than an “it”. Most of us are probably still a long way from the scenario depicted in the movie “Her“, but what happens when we view computers more like pets than devices?

Update: This just in – people will lie to robots to avoid hurting their feelings.

Header image courtesy of Radiohead via album art.