SoftMaker logo

Bytes and Beyond

Voice assistants: trick or treat?


First of all: Please don't expect me to provide you with a balanced view about voice assistants. Alexa & Co. have annoyed me far too often for me to stay fair and balanced. I didn't even need my own assistant to reach this point: Visits to friends with more or less Smart Homes were sufficient.

Of course, voice control and home automation aren't always pointless – in certain situations Bixby, Cortana, Google Now and Siri can be really helpful. If both hands have to remain on the steering wheel or if your arms are stuck in plaster, it is really practical when an assistant takes you by your word.

Like so many digital inventions, voice assistants can be as much a curse as a blessing. Let me help you weigh the pros and cons.


The other day a friend sent me this joke that I can't find again, forcing me to reconstruct it from memory. "In the 1980s we worried: 'Oh God, we're being eavesdropped on by hidden listening devices!' In 2019, it's: 'Hello listening device, be sure to add toilet paper to my shopping list.'"

Today, you can even choose who you want to do the eavesdropping. The best known voice assistants are Alexa by Amazon, Siri by Apple, Assistant by Google, Cortana by Microsoft and Bixby by Samsung. However, some corporate helplines also feature voice recognition technology to take down customer data and phone numbers as well as record error reports. And let's not forget my favorite, the voice feature of my car GPS which is best described as "stubborn like a Southern donkey."

By themselves, assistants aren't much

On their own, voice assistants can provide little more than basic information: What's the weather like, read me the news, what theaters are playing the current Spider-Man movie. To become active, they require additional home automation hardware – enter the buzzword "Smart Home".

Smart Homes are the model railways of the 21st century: On one hand, I do understand the satisfaction when you just have to say a few words to make the lights go out in the ground floor, instead of having to shuffle down the stairs yet again. On the other hand, this joy is just as childish as when the tiny gates at the miniature railroad crossing automatically lower before the electric locomotive races through.

Voice assistants plus home automation hardware can preheat apartments, tilt windows, lower blinds, irrigate lawns and lock doors. All this from afar or from the bathtub. Chores formerly assigned to the youngest child of the family are now taken care of by a voice assistant – which will never complain. That's progress to you.

Where assistants are useful

In all fairness, assistants can be extremely useful. For example, for a person in a wheelchair, voice-controlled home automation can mean a significant gain in independence. If you can only reach for the window handle with agony or not at all, a remote-controlled motor is no longer a childish toy, but a sensible enrichment of your quality of life.

If your arm is stuck in a plaster cast after an accident, a mobile phone that listens helps to get through the tedious weeks of healing (get well soon, by the way). With a car GPS, voice control is actually a must – if the navigator reports a traffic jam at 120 km/h on the motorway and asks if you want to take a 30-minute shorter route, it must be able to react reliably to a shouted "oh God, please yes."

As long as there are people for whom voice assistants are a useful improvement of their life and not just a geeky gadget, I don't mind voice recognition technology spreading further – provided I can still find a way around them. When the voicemail system of my phone provider becomes too annoying, I start to mumble incomprehensibly until the computer gives up and connects me to a real person.

Is artificial intelligence better than none at all?

Voice assistants are often lumped together with artificial intelligence. Depending on the writer's attitude, this is supposed to invoke coolness or a threat – in either case it's nothing but hot air. In a nutshell, artificial intelligence doesn't exist. "Machine learning" is a far more accurate term: Roughly speaking, it's a matter of computers learning to recognize patterns and react accordingly.

Current voice assistants don't even learn: Most of the current genration can react only to a very limited word set and even then they can be quite picky. Recently, a dear friend tried to get an Alexa speaker to switch off the lamp next to his sofa. He tried it three times using different intonations, the volume of his voice increasing with each attempt. I sat quietly on the sofa and was torn whether to pity or mock him.

Maybe the difference to a stubborn child isn't that big: As a small child I sometimes closed my ears from the inside when my mom yelled my name from the living room. I knew I was needed, but I didn't feel like it.

Alexa probably wasn't faking it, though – she really seems to be somewhat hard of hearing. Loudspeakers or mobile phones can't really recognize much by themselves. Instead, they record the command and send it to a big neural network in the cloud, which then tells the dumb hardware how to react. If this connection is broken, the assistant will merely go "Huh?" – much more politely than an indignant child of course.

Without additional human help, the current generation of voice assistants would be a complete failure. It is known of Amazon and Google that behind the scenes, a phalanx of Third World writers is busily transcribing recorded conversations to improve the assistants' recognition rates. Apple, Microsoft and Samsung are unlikely to handle things differently. That's quite an effort just to make sure Alexa will eventually take down an order for a year's supply of salt and vinegar chips even though your mouth was full.

The standard voice is always female

Too many basic things bother me about voice assistants to want to give them a chance with my household. This starts with the fact that all voice assistants seem to talk with warm female voices.

It's not that I long for voice assistants to talk with a male screeching tone à la Gilbert Gottfried. But I'm still annoyed by the fact that all voice assistants are female by default. To my taste, the role cliché of the submissive female has not gone out of fashion for long enough. Only Apple Siri, Google Assistant and Samsung Bixby offer the option of switching their gender – Google even offers a choice of four male voices. Amazon Alexa and Microsoft Cortana, on the other hand, are locked to the female gender – their warm voices patiently adding toilet paper to your shopping list, provided there's an internet connection.

A deeper issue is the bitter core of truth within the joke I mentioned at the beginning. Time and time again, voice assistants have recorded conversations because they mistook a word from a casual conversation for an activation command. In the USA, Alexa speakers are said to have reacted by the thousands when her name was mentioned on TV. Amazon has recently filed a patent for Alexa to execute an instruction even if the activation word comes after the command itself. This can only work if the system is constantly listening.

In ioco veritas

Such circumstances awaken new desires: German secretaries of the interior have recently voiced the opinion that access to voice recordings from smart home devices should not require a judge's permission for "acoustic surveillance", but merely a search warrant: after all, the recordings were already there and they were not specifically recorded for the investigators.

It took the resulting public debate to make clear to me the basic problems of data protection raised by voice assistants. Ultimately, Amazon, Apple, Google & Co. store and process their assistants' recordings in accordance with their own rules. In a country such as Germany, where a good part of the population has experienced systematic state surveillance for decades, this inevitably creates unease.

If Alexa will not even reliably understand that she should turn off a floor lamp, I don't want to imagine what might happen if the assistant misinterprets a lively discussion about terrorist attacks as a specific plan for one. Hold on for a second, there's somebody very insistently knocking at my door right now...


Comments

Roy Hewitt

2019-08-09 14:55

Interesting article and comments.
However, I have this to say about them, well, not me but the Borg:
"We Are the Borg. You Will be Assimilated. Resistance is Futile"
Of course, in the films The Borg is destroyed and all is sweetness and light once more; key point there is '... in the films ...'.
Not so in real life - the Plan is going according to, well, plan.
There is a misnomer that "people matter" and that 'People Power' will prevail - I mean in the films the good-guys always win - don't they?
There are any number of Greta Thunbergs et-al banging their drums - latest is 5G - and they are 'allowed' a modicum of success in things that, to those known as 'They' and 'Them', don't matter. But stand in the way of what does and that's a different matter altogether and you will find that people really don't matter.
Look how easily 'the enemy' can be, and is, killed to achieve an objective, how any organisation deemed to be getting too big for its boots will be infiltrated and destroyed from within. Talking of Greta Thunberg; are the cracks begining to show already? buzzfeednews.com/.../....
The best we can do is look out for ourselves and families; the propaganda machine works too well and the masses are hypnotised by all the bling and glitz - bread and circuses; the Romans knew a thing or too.

LLordy LLordy

2019-08-08 12:00

Brilliant article. Well written.

SMART things? Not in my home. Never.

Mr. Grey

2019-08-07 19:27

Not for a couple more generations, but it will be common for everyone. Sure it's convenient to have the air or heat turned on before you get home. It's nice to have someone remember to write down a shopping list for you. Being new, it isn't a common occurrence, but it will be soon enough. Same as say auto correct with typing.
There won't be any privacy, everyone will sell it away, under the guise of convenience. Mobile phones track our every move already. "You want to be saved don't you"? Recording everything that is being said. How will it be used? I certainly doubt that Morton salt is interested in your requesting you add that by name, to the pantry list.
What about social media in general? "you" feel so important sharing your lunch or vacation. 'Why not have this assistant do that for you'?
No, nothing good comes out of greed or laziness.
. . .excuse me while I go turn up the heat in the pan, so I can boil this frog".

Stephen P

2019-08-07 11:37

I can see the benefits but I am not in favour of them. Back in around the year 2000 I had a basic PC, a few years old and certainly less powerful and with less storage than one of todays budget smartphones. I used voice recognition software installed locally, and it maybe took 15 minutes to configure so it got to analyse my voice and had a pretty good understanding of what I said and could be retaught things it did not get right. It only listened when the software was running, but it did not need to communicate with a dark shed to work out what you said or rely on an army of transcribers. I realise if you want the digital assistant to access web resources you need a live internet connection but for many actions this is also unnecessary e.g. switching on the lamp beside you. With the companies' investments how do they get their money back? By listening they are compiling profiles and information to monitise you and your requests to provide goods and services to generate more revenue for themselves. My personal preference would be for a stand alone voice assistant on my phone or table that I can train and use off line to launch apps, work through my local music library, send text messages (who need Twitter/Facebook etc right?), and only access web resources with my express permission when I require it. To my shame I have android phones which monitor all I do, its in their T&Cs and I accept it because it is useful. I use the GPS in my phone for fun and work so google know exactly where I am, google maps is better than my aged satnav and google knows my search and browser history, which is why I get my 'tailored' adverts, but it doesn't have my voice and is unlikely to get it in the near future though I am sure that time will come.

Jez Siddons

2019-08-06 11:45

A superb article, very interesting.
I too have a worry about so-called "progress". These devices are way too unreliable and their connections to the big internet giants is too much of a weak link and also a worry in itself.
Even when just listening to my favorourite internet radio station, the Amazon device is unreliable and often falls silent for no apparant reason (although I suspect it is congestion or poor software).

Julian Wells

2019-08-06 11:13

A thought provoking and amusing article, thank you.

Fred

2019-08-06 10:07

Come on they work. MacKenzie Besos was able to gather information on Jeff to realise that his performance wasn't good enough, so she had to divorce him.

Shannon McDowell

2019-08-06 06:42

Excellent blog post and discussion!

Initially I was fascinated with voice-controlled assistants until I learned they relied on an "open mic" that sent recorded commands to a server for interpretation (which sometimes involves human observers). I'm paranoid enough without inviting unguarded cameras and microphones into my house!

But privacy issues aside, I also found digital assistants to be too "gimmicky" for my needs; however, I respect their pragmatic functionalities for those with limited accessibility.

Thank you for the post and the intelligent conversations it sparked!

Best,
Shan

TedBear

2019-08-06 06:19

I am amazed how many people think that the device isn't listening until they say the keyword. How can it know if you said the keyword without it listening all the time...? Every word you are saying is sent away, recorded and analyzed in order for it to work. I would rather turn my own lights on and off, etc, than throw away my privacy and open up my home to Big Tech. We already know how trustworthy they are (not). The female voice is used to imply "I am not a threat." This bit of technology is not for me thanks!

George Crawford

2019-08-06 00:57

Voice assistance are useful but I worry about privacy. Companies already know about us through our Interne activities and purchases. Voice assistants I feel add to this knowledge. I worry about "Big Brother" starting to watch us too much and taking away our right to privacy and maybe our democracy.. Smile Big Brother is watching you! 1984 is here, 35 years late! Good Blog Post!

Stu Mountjoy

2019-08-05 21:32

If you ever dream of a voice assistant sounding like a girlfriend you would like to have, watch the movie "Her", LOL.

Stijn

2019-08-05 20:50

Okay, I am growing grey hairs by now (being from the early 70-ies). Yet, I am giving myself the doubt of being critical of developments when necessary. You Germans, my truly dear neighbours, have experienced much of the excesses of totalitarian regimes (be it fascist or be it communist in nature).

You see, some people make a great impression on one's mind. To me that was Hans Magnus Enzensberger: "Traue dir niemals ein Staat - NIEMALS!" (Never, EVER, trust your state.)

Frankly, that is very much our duty as a citizen. Always be critical.

Insert the listening devices.... Oh glorious world !!

I am not a conspiracy thinker at all. Far from it. Yet, devices like these (smartphones and laptops with camera/microphone included) are invading our lives. It is just a matter of time until some state will abuse this to the detriment of its citizens on a scale that Hitler, Stalin or the 40-ies fascists in the UK/USA would have love to have. And well - that exploitation may very well be happening as of now in some states already.

So in the end, and to future generation in the year 2519 : call me a pessimist, but human dignity is not going to survive in the very long run. (Yes: people were able to think for themselves as some point in time!)

Too bad. It was a nice experiment - human kind.

Shannon McDowell

2019-08-06 06:31

I agree with your reply to this timely blog topic. The potential for surveillance abuse is far too great for many of the new technologies we have consumed; "Orwellian" is a common term regarding such a draconian society but even George Orwell couldn't foresee A.I. predictive algorithms, face-and-voice recognition, etc. And it doesn't matter if the abuse comes from government, corporate, or an individual (i.e. hacker); in the end, we will be at the mercy of whoever abuses the technology for their agenda.

Best,
Shan

Walter Shillington

2019-08-05 16:10

During Prime Day my sister decided to purchase a couple of Echo Dots. She piqued my interest and, since they were going for half price and, for ten dollars more, Amazon would add one of their plugs (used to turn power on or off) I bought one of the more expensive Echo devices.

I didn't find the plug very useful but the Echo device is a lot of fun. I remember I asked it what the Blue Jays score was (my favourite baseball team). Alexa said that the game was playing at 8:00 this evening and did I want to be reminded? I did. At eight o'clock, Alexa flashed up and reminded me about the game. If a game was already underway, it will tell me the score and who is pitching.

This thing has access to more information than I had thought. Even some of my weirder question have resulted in answers that were somewhat reasonable. Also, although I tend to mumble, this robot assistant appears to have no problem understanding what I say.

The echo device has pretty good speakers and can access Amazon's music channels (I have Amazon Prime). The sound is good and a question like "Alexa, play 80s rock music" will result in exactly the kind of music that I intended. I like this device so much that I have ordered a subwoofer to go with it... so if Amazon is using Alexa to extract more money from my pockets, they are enjoying success.

While this device is not perfect, my biggest surprise was how well it worked and how useful it has become. I think that these robotic assistants will become very popular in the near future.

R David Parker

2019-08-05 16:09

Your articles are generally well balanced and informative. I do not, at the moment, have digital assistants (that I am aware of spying on me). Keep writing your articles.

Phil Andrews

2019-08-05 13:59

When I see people looking at these devices, I find it very difficult not to ask them if I can come to their house and install a microphone, so I can listen in on their lives too.

Brian Wilson

2019-08-05 13:06

I think voice assistants have there place.
Certainly for the infirm who rely on contacting sonebody in the event of an emergency. For instance, my sister in law had difficulty breathing and could not get to the phone, she screamed ' I need help cannot breathe ' a paramedic soon arrived, and on this occasion survived!

I attended a board meeting recently and was amazed at how many colleagues use voice assistants for routine tasks,

I however, like to do things for myself, love personal contact so will not be buying one for myself

Frank Buddingh

2019-08-05 12:07

Good food for thought.
I loathe those assistants. As long as I am healthy and able to go about, I rather close the curtains myself or turn the lights on or off.... Virtual assistants will be a major contribution to turning us in unfit and ailing beings.

Joyce Williams

2019-08-06 15:14

You bring up a point that I have been concerned over since this technology has emerged. While there are practical benefits as pointed out by this article, the symbiotic relationship between human laziness and technology that encourages it and profits from it is disturbing. In fact, one has to work harder at avoiding so much of the information gathering technology that is permeating our digital society. I personally, become irritated by the number of times I have to specify that I don't want to share my location or receive notifications or emails or have my internet searches tracked (to personalize my web experience, really?) . Tracking and surveying seem to be the default.

Ken Holmes

2019-08-05 11:32

A well done article!!

I am concerned that "personal assistants" such as Alexa can become deadly components of a society that appears democratic but in reality are tools for excessive monitoring. I recall that Facebook created two bots they were planning to insert in their chat software. These bots were to act like humans and were supposedly designed to respond to questions. Then the unimaginable happened - the two bots began to communicate with each other and began to write their own computer language that only they would understand. Facebook analysts, in shock, pulled the plug and destroyed the bots.

Last year I gave a presentation to an IT group in Canada entitled: "Artificial Intelligence Through the Mind of a Joseph Stalin." Alexa and their cousins could easily be employed to collect data for nefarious forces who could create AI for any digital purpose. Think of it. Are you familiar with Sophia the AI human? Please watch this You Tube video www.youtube.com/watch?v=78-1MlkxyqI. This is scary. Alexa can be used to collect massive information about each one of us. Society needs to take a step back, halt this train, and examine all aspects of this area of AI, information collection and the source gatherers such as Alexa. Democracy and could be hanging in the balance.

thank you for issuing your article. I really love your company. When my new computer is installed I plan to order your software. Take care

Ken Holmes CPA

Gaillen Taser Wraye

2019-08-05 16:45

Great response Ken. I feel the same. The nefarious constant surveillance of our everyday tasks. Unsettling. And Sophia ... Right out of a terminator movie.
I look forward to your followups.

Cheers... Taser

Arturo Burro

2019-08-06 04:19

It is only a matter of time until politicians turn the information gathered for them by voice assistents into assets that will help them retain power and enslave the more than willing participants. I'll pass on them all.

Add comment

Thank you.

The product has been added to the shopping cart.