CES: Lot’s of Voice Recognition

The annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) is always a rich source of blog-fodder. This is, after all, densely packed with Innappropriate Touch Screens Interfaces and hundreds of “why would anyone want this” gadgets.

This year everyone is remarking on the plethora of IoT devices, including the canonical toasters and refrigerators. Sigh.

Another trend is the explosion of voice recognition. As Amy Nordrum says, it is “The Year of Voice Recognition” Driven by improved accuracy, voice recognition is already out there (I’ve been seeing ads for Amazon and Google home assistants on TV). But it is sure to show up in lots of products no doubt including toasters and refrigerators. Sigh.

In one sense, this is a reasonable response to the plague of Inappororiate Touch Screens I have complained about. Talking to your toaster via your mobile device is dubious design, and, as Tekla S. Perry says, “For years now, the consumer electronics industry has been trying to sell slightly intelligent Internet-connected appliances that you can control from your smart phone—and not gotten very far.

So, the thinking goes, lets replace that stupid idea with a voice interface, which is hands free and possibly more natural for the in-home setting. And Perry has a point when she says that this approach moves the center of the home away from the TV and into the kitchen. “[A]s has been true since the beginnings of civilization, the heart of the home will be the hearth.”

By now, we have all seen the current generation of chatty, “friendly” digital assistant, so it is easy to imagine them infesting our appliances. If you are happy to search for restaurants or call up a play list by voice command to your phone, you’ll probably be content telling your toaster to make toast, or your refrigerator to order more sprouts.

You have probably noticed that I’m not a huge fan of voice interfaces.  if people could always speak clearly, honestly and unambiguously, we wouldn’t need lawyers or psychotherapists.  If people always understood what is said to them, we wouldn’t have divorces or wars.

As far as I can tell, this technology seems to depend on being internet connected, so the assistant software can reside in “the cloud” somewhere. There are so many implications of this architecture that I won’t go into it now. Suffice it to say that I am not enthusiastic about having the Internet listening to my family conversations. As Evan Ackerman comments, CES is full of “appliances that spy on you in as many different ways as they possibly can“.

Finally, we might wonder just how such devices might affect family life. Innocent gadgets can have profound impacts on our attention, interpersonal relations, and family life. We need look no farther than the example of TV and the mobile phone to see how disruptive a chatty refrigerator might turn out to be.

Have these devices been field tested? Do we have any idea what the side effects might be? Just how benign is this technology? Is it safe for children? Is it good for children?

For example, I’m imagining that children will quickly learn that the world is supposed to respond to your commands, instantly and without argument, so long as it is prefixed by “OK Google”.

“OK, Mom. Give my cereal now.”

“OK Dad, Buy me a new xbox.”

Is this a good lesson to teach your children?

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