Giving voice to technology

With products such as Cortana, Siri and Alexa now on the market, the era of speech-recognition technology is upon us.

"Alexa, I'm home. Turn on the lights and music, please. Pick something relaxing, maybe Van Morrison. What time is my dinner appointment tonight?” The lights in the living room turn on, Van Morrison starts streaming from Pandora and I hear, “Your calendar shows dinner at 7 p.m.”

It’s 2016. Welcome to the year of speech-recognition technology that allows machines or programs to understand and carry out spoken commands. Alexa is Amazon’s cloud-based voice service. It’s connected to Amazon Echo, a hands-free, always-on personal assistant with a seven-microphone array and wireless speakers designed to respond to your sound profile. It can read you a book, provide real-time traffic reports, set an alarm and control the wonderful world of devices connected to the Internet of Things, such as lights and electrical switches.

Alexa joins Windows 10’s personal voice assistant, Cortana, Apple’s Siri, Google’s Google Now and an emerging selection from startups in opening up a new world of social devices. All of this is due in part to the decreasing size of processors and Wi-Fi electronics, which allows us to enjoy the benefits of digital smarts in everyday devices, such as lights, thermostats, video cameras, door locks and even toys, specifically Hello Barbie (more about her later). It is seldom easy to put a keyboard or touch screen on these devices, so voice is the preferred input method.

Sure, there is still room for improvement but the technology is getting very good at understanding your unique speaking patterns. I use it to dictate text on my phone all the time. It is much faster and more accurate than when I type. I speak to my car and I’d gladly use this technology in my home.

If I had a granddaughter, I’d be introducing her to the Hello Barbie doll that she could talk with — not to. As crazy as it may sound, Hello Barbie is the next stage in our relationship with technology. When kids push the button on Hello Barbie, they wake up the doll. As they start to talk with her, Barbie sends whatever they say into the cloud for processing. The kids’ responses are saved in order to refine their conversation. Over time, Hello Barbie discovers the users’ likes and dislikes and uses them to filter the conversation so they can have a truly informed chitchat. This takes us deeper into the inevitable world of transparency, whether we like it or not.

Echo, Hello Barbie and Jibo (a social robot) have microphones, or dare I say ears, to listen with. Marc Rotenberg, head of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, has said most people don’t realize their audio goes online for processing. They think the device understands their voice on its own. He sees “a serious disconnect between how most consumers believe these devices operate and how they operate in fact.”

A voice-activated device has to know when you are talking to it, which means it’s always “listening” for the “wake word” to activate. In a future column we’ll take a closer look at the transparency in our world. Who would have thought that a microwave might have the ability to tell secrets to Google? For now, don’t let this hinder you from taking advantage of voice.

Instead, start with something simple. Use voice to dictate text messages on your phone. Have Cortana set an appointment and perform quick calculations or searches for you. This will allow your voice assistant to learn your speaking style, and you’ll get comfortable with speaking out loud to your devices.

Don’t forget that to use voice on your workstation you will need a microphone. In fact, everyone around you will soon be using voice too. So if you need to purchase a mike, you’d be wise to also get a good set of noise-cancelling headphones. This way you are less likely to be distracted or tempted to listen to all the digital conversations going on around you.