How the rise of voice is revolutionising our digital lives

Alexa

Written by Robin Christopherson, MBE, Head of Digital Inclusion at AbilityNet

There was a time when the only option was to let our fingers do the talking.

However, advances in speech technology mean that for people with visual, mobility or cognitive impairments it’s just as easy and effective to access technology with your voice.

Finding our voice(s)

Full out-of-the-box voice control of smartphones and tablets is a reality since the built-in voice control abilities of iOS 13. Voice recognition is now accurate enough to make it a powerful option for creating text and doing a range of tasks on your phone.

Today the leading voice-driven assistant on the market is arguably Amazon’s Alexa.

Inhabiting a range of Echo speakers Fire tablets and TVs, smartphones and tablets and an eye-opening array of appliances (from microwaves to dishwashers, from cars to singing fish) Alexa is here to stay.

It certainly feels like we are well and truly into a brand-new digital age; the age of voice-first computing.

The advent of voice-first computing

We’ve been inundated by a tsunami of devices, imbued with the ability to hear what you’re saying, process it’s meaning, and act on it.

Voice tech could be built into your car’s dashboard, or an inseparable element of your watch, phone or laptop. Behind this tech often lurks a powerful processor, neural networks and cloud-based machine learning APIs, providing the true brains behind these smart devices.

The closer we get to a natural interaction with a helpful, human-sounding entity the more like a normal part of everyday life.

A voice-driven, connected environment

Amazon Echo on top of some books

The great thing about this voice tech is its ability to empower where no other tech can quite reach.

Moreover, what was once considered specialist is now thoroughly mainstream and improving the lives of people with a range of disabilities – including visual or cognitive impairments, alongside the (perhaps more obvious) users with a physical disability.

From lights to alarms, washing machines to microwaves, fridges to TVs, locks to blinds, coffee machines to doorbells, there’s an inexpensive option if you want to make your immediate environment smarter. You can even buy smart plugs that can instantly make dumb devices voice enabled.

Does talking to several smart devices sound like hard work? If so then there’s even handy automation to assist in all those arduous commands.

For example, you can chain several actions together into routines. That means you can tell Alexa “Good night” and have her turn off the lights, lock the doors and set an alarm call.

Futuristic stuff – available today.

Voice-enabling a more inclusive world

Being blind, the application of modern technology has helped me in almost every aspect of my life. Speech output technology makes access to computers, smartphones and other modern appliances possible.

Voice recognition has made the input of text and commands quicker and easier.

Machine learning has helped interpret images and turn the printed word (usually found on pulpy bits of dead trees) into electronic text. As tech becomes smarter, more affordable and easier to use, people with disabilities are among the first to benefit in their daily lives.

And a speech or hearing impairment is no barrier to accessing Alexa, as I argue in my recent blog.

A more personal virtual assistant

Just as the web seeks to create an ever-more personalised experience, so too will the realm of voice-first tech. Most virtual assistants are already able to learn our own unique voices and differentiate us from others in our family (if you’ve got an Echo handy say, “Alexa, learn my voice.”)

In this way, your smart speaker can play your preferred music when you ask, list your personal to-dos, appointments or shopping items and allow explicit content to be accessed by adult users only.

This ability to recognise individual voiceprints will not only help deliver a personalised experience at home, it opens up the potential for databases to be shared (much like banks of known fingerprints and faces are today) at which point it will no longer matter whether you access information through your own device, one borrowed from a friend, through something secreted in a bus stop, say, or in any public place.  Your voice will be recognised, and a personal experience delivered.

This much more ubiquitous approach to the delivery of ambient digital services will make every ATM more secure, every locked door open at your command, every hotel receptionist able to sign you in after only a few syllables and so on and on and on – and I for one welcome our ever-vigilant overlords!

Isn’t it about time we let our voices do the talking?


Originally published here.

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