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I’m a digital immigrant with a sceptical mindset. But this one question suddenly transformed smart speakers from a bit of a novelty toy to something potentially life changing.
Voice recognition can be hugely enabling. It has been around for years as a tool used by people with physical disabilities and learning difficulties, such as dyslexia, to navigate the web, write documents, and so on.
But now that voice recognition has been boosted with artificial intelligence in the smart speaker, and connected to smart devices in the home, the possibilities for this technology are considerable. Instructing a smart speaker to turn the lights on might seem a bit gimmicky to most of us, but it can be priceless for those with permanent, temporary (such as a broken arm) and even situational (like carrying the shopping) impairments.
There are clear advantages in enabling people with the right tools to become more independent. But there are also the mental health benefits that come with greater independence, too.
There are trials currently underway that are exploring how smart speakers can improve independent living. Both Cardiff County Council and Hampshire County Council have been running pilot schemes to see if smart speakers can provide additional support to that provided by carers.
The BBC did a feature video on the Hampshire trial, which is well worth a look – though it is only fair to warn you that it contains some Barry Manilow tunes.
But it isn’t just people with physical impairments that could benefit from a smart speaker. There is some anecdotal evidence that smart speakers can be helpful for people with dementia as well. Rick Phelps, who has dementia describes his smart speaker as “a miracle” and wrote that it, “has afforded me something that I have lost: my memory. I can ask Alexa anything and I get the answer instantly. I can also ask it what day it is 20 times each day, and I will still get the same correct answer. (It also doesn’t get annoyed with me.)”
It is not all plain sailing, however. For all the recent improvements in voice recognition, smart speakers can still struggle with deaf accents, stutters and other non-fluid speech patterns.
Older people, just like me, tend to be sceptical about new technologies. Learning can be harder. Although smart speakers are barely out of nappies, Juniper Research predicts that by 2022, a majority of households (55%) will have one. But it is estimated that only 12% of the 39 million smart speakers sold in the US were bought by digiboomers.
As more and more key services go online (The DVLA Vehicle Enquiry Alexa skill has been nominated for the ‘Digital Public Service Innovation of the Year’ award) smart speakers could be an important tool to get older users to move into the digital space. Despite being wary of new technologies, voice recognition is a more naturalistic way of interacting, and smart speakers could reduce the technological barriers for older people. And, who knows, perhaps they will indeed help with independent living.