Is voice technology the voice of reason?  We dig behind the power and purpose of voice operated devices…

We like to speak about the unspoken, and what better way to do this than to enter the pits of a nightmarish (or heaven-like) technology-led universe? Each week, we’ll be approaching a Tech Taboo topic that has caught the attention of our society for its potential to benefit or harm us. From provocative product launches to digital dangers, this series is called Tech Taboo for a reason…

“Alexa – play 6 Music” – that’s a command I hear almost everyday in the office – I’m looking at you, Darren (our Creative Director / resident piece of musical history.) So often does this happen, I am now accustomed to it. Although the concept of talking to voice-operated devices may seem bizarre, it’s actually no longer bizarre as 2.7m households in the UK currently own an Amazon Echo or Google Home device. But behind this exchange between human and AI, comes a fast-changing world of technology whereby our behaviours of how we shop, search and generally interact, have changed. As voice technology becomes more pervasive in our lives, there’s a real opportunity for brands and consumers to grow their rapport. But however helpful these devices may be, having a permanent recording in your home potentially opens up a can of worms with your conversations and arguments being heard at all times. So despite privacy concerns, are people punching through this taboo?

“Voice has the potential to greatly impact interaction between humans and computers.”Daren Gill, Director, Amazon Alexa.

Talk Over Text

Let’s face it – typing is effort. Yes, I’m lazy, but if you could receive a response by asking someone or something aloud, as opposed to exercising your fingers, you would. Simply because it’s easier. Think back to 15 years ago – just wanting to say ‘hello’ over text required you to hit ‘4433555555666’. From here, we’ve simplified a few character presses and now we’re going one step further to reduce it to a simple guttural sound. Broadly speaking, voice search mimics natural behaviour as talking is a much more instinctual and casual thing to do. And in our way of interacting with voice-operated devices, voice search is able to showcase more intent as Google spurs you to clarify your query, so it can decipher whether you want a product or service as well as providing one definitive answer as opposed to a string of results. If anything, when it comes to voice search, Google really is your best friend in this context. But what is voice technology mainly being used for? Well according to Google, most of us use these devices to help us juggle several things at once i.e. asking Siri to play music whilst you’re baking. Aside from this, our impatient behaviour and desperate need to ‘know in the now’ triggers us to receive instant answers and information without having to give our full attention to the task at hand, thanks to this glorified remote control. So with this behaviour in mind, surely there’s a bigger opportunity for brands and consumers to engage in more intimate conversations?

“Voice search queries are 30 times more likely to be action-oriented than typed queries, meaning businesses have an ideal opening to recommend their services to the search user.”Gaelle Bertrand, Head of Brand Insight and Social Media Intelligence at Kantar Media.

Brand on Demand

We’re in a ‘brandless’ universe of voice, so whilst there is room for brands to enhance their communication with its users, brands need to redefine the way they engage with its consumers by building a richer relationship. But before brands can jump into getting their own branded voice right, they need to get used to two services voice technology devices can offer – instantaneous search and online shopping. So far, there have been several brands who have blended pure utility and voice technology such as Domino’s who allow you to order your Texas BBQ large pizza via Amazon Alexa. As such, there’s a possibility that traditional advertising maybe tested, especially if brands respond to this growing trend by offering their products and services at the right moment i.e. at the point of user-need. If this is to happen (and it already is) the shift to voice commerce will ultimately provide a seamless service for its users when they shop online. No longer will we have to open up several tabs to purchase our most-wanted items as brands will focus on creating a single interface – without a screen. But let’s step outside of brands for the moment and look at the potential issues at hand. If you think about it, this is a device that is ‘always on’ – always listening to your every sound and move…   

Behind Closed Doors

As these devices are triggered to wake up whenever they hear their ‘wake words’, there may be moments when parts of conversation become stored without you realising or approving it. Amazon Alexa and Google Home are not trained to differentiate between different people’s voices which is why there have been several cases where unwanted items have turned up at front doors and in a more sinister scenario, helped to solve a murder case. We think of our homes as the most private place in the world, but with more of us adopting little Alexa, a question of whether our privacy is protected arises. There are ways to shield your conversations being heard such as muting the microphone or logging into your account and changing your settings – or even deleting your history. But the real scare regarding voice technology devices are hackers who find and exploit the flaws within the technology powering these devices – just take a look at the #DolphinAttack and you’ll see exactly how these crafty hackers are able to take advantage of voice-operated devices. However there are some positives than can be drawn from this when it comes to safety and crime as police in the UK earlier announced this year that they want to use voice-controlled Alexa devices to reduce pressure on call centres and even provide daily crime updates to members of the public – but there’s still a long way to go…

“It’s not about how we talk to machines, it’s about how machines helps us talk to each other.” – Steve Quirke, Head of Strategy at YFS.

The Speed of Sound

It seems like we are slowly shifting away from ‘prodding’ and are moving to interfaces that are powered by voice, movements and gaze, which is why I believe that devices surrounding these sensory activities will become more prevalent. Moreover, brands are already incorporating voice technology within their products – the Mercedes A-Class is the first that comes to mind. What’s wonderful about brands infusing voice technology within their products and services is that it’s not just about improving convenience – it’s also an opportunity for brands to craft immersive and captivating experiences. Moreover, as more people are using voice-operated devices, it’s key for brands to control their user i.e. teaching your skill to understand the person you’re talking to, as opposed to the other way round.

Believe me, this is the voice of reason.