Voice Control: Awesome or Awful?
If your name happens to be Alexa—as was the name of my waitress the other day—you have my sympathies. (If your name is OK Google, you probably don’t need sympathy. You need a good family therapist.) You can’t blame your parents for naming you Alexa—unless you were born after Amazon introduced the Echo in 2014.
How could anyone have predicted how absurdly popular Amazon’s Alexa voice-control service would become? Four years ago, I never imagined there’d be such a superfluity of smart devices that are “Compatible with Alexa”—thermostats, ceiling fans, robot vacuum cleaners, light switches, microwave ovens, dishwashers, humidifiers/essential-oil diffusers, washers and dryers, door locks, salt shakers, and I’m not even close to being finished yet.
I think I can predict that, unlike 3D, voice control isn’t going to be a fad that quickly loses its popularity and then, as the years pass, barely clings to life as a glossed-over line item on a features/specification list. I have my doubts about the staying power of an Alexa-compatible smart salt dispenser with built-in mood lighting and Bluetooth speaker (and, no, I’m not making that up). But I’m positive that, in general, voice control is here to stay.
the SMALT smart salt dispenser
Voice-recognition technology will continue to improve, and the entire virtual assistant experience will get better—whether you’re using Alexa, Google Assistant, Siri, or an up-and-coming open-source voice assistant like Mycroft AI. While that’s all fine and dandy, it doesn’t mean that everything is all right and nifty. Although we’re not the only creatures on this planet
that use tools, our species definitely relies on tools more than any of the others. I imagine one of our distant ancestors, an industrious Australopithecus afarensis dude, bashed a rock (or somebody’s head) with another rock, turned to the guy next to him, and grunted, “Always use the right tool for the right job.” Closer to our time, another person—
most likely a Minoan or a Roman—uttered the maxim, “When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” (As far as “Don’t be a tool” goes, I have no idea when that pithy nugget of advice became a thing.)
As magical as it may seem, voice control is nothing more than one more tool in our technology toolbox. It’s in there next to the infrared remote control, the joystick, the smartphone app, and the Star Wars Talking Darth Vader Clapper. It’s a good tool,
too. But because it’s new, there’s an irresistible urge for companies to include voice-control capabilities in devices that have no need for them—even when voice control makes using the gadget more difficult. That’s the sort of user experience that can turn a person against voice control in general, especially if it’s the user’s first exposure to it.
I understand the urge to incorporate voice control into everything. I’ve had a relatively good experience with the Alexa devices (mostly Echoes), and it can easily fool you into thinking of it as the Swiss Army Knife of user interfaces. A couple of frustratingly one-sided “conversations” with Alexa—involving not waking up, not understanding a command, being told “Hmmm, I’m not sure right now,” getting a response to a totally random request, and having Alexa respond to the TV—will quickly disabuse you of that notion. (One time I asked Alexa to play “The world’s most relaxing song”—and, yes, there is such a thing. Alexa’s response was to play a long recording of a vuvuzela at max volume.)
Although voice control is a great tool for many tasks, it’s not the right tool for every job. It’s not even the right tool for most jobs. Sometimes it’s easier to use an app on your phone. At other times, it’s by far more intuitive and faster to use a remote control. Sometimes, shockingly, it’s actually best to use the buttons on the front panel.
Rather than a being a one-size-fits-all tool, voice control is more of a hammer whose usefulness is limited to working with “nails” made up of very specific words and phrases that are recognized by the controller. No matter how good
natural-language processing eventually becomes, there will always be tasks for which it will be easier, faster, or less aggravating to accomplish by some manner other than speaking.
Voice control is here to stay, but that doesn’t mean you have to use it.
During his 33 years of tenure in the consumer-electronics industry, Darryl Wilkinson
has made a career out of saying things that sound like they could be true about topics
he knows next to nothing about. He is currently Editor-at-Large for Sound & Vision, and
sometimes writes things that can be read—if you have nothing else to do—elsewhere.
His biggest accomplishment to date has been making a very fashionable Faraday