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Virtual assistants are coming (and we can't stop them) by Abbie Boorman

“Alexa, Play Moana on Spotify… NOW!”

It’s 7:00am, just another grey Tuesday morning in the middle of a spring that refuses to appear.

The sound of our two-and-a-bit year old screeching at the Amazon Echo in her bedroom has become a daily experience since she realised she can summon the musical skills of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson at a moment’s notice just by asking - well, shouting at - the speaker.

The smart home as we know it today isn’t, in many ways, all that smart - but the promise that it holds is a compelling one.

This is the promise that we are not far from a “Jarvis” style, ever-present helper in our living rooms, cars and offices; picking up the digital clutter of everyday tasks and chores.

We are currently experiencing what I call ‘the awkward teenage phase’ - but we are getting used to living with these assistants (Alexa, Google, Siri, Cortana etc) in our homes at a staggering rate.

A few years ago, if I asked you “would you be OK with the world’s largest eStore putting a microphone and camera in your bedroom, that is always turned on” you would have thought I 'd had one too many ales. But this is where we are, after just three years on the consumer market.

1 in 4 homes in the UK and US now have at least one smart speaker (or intend to buy one in the coming 6 months). That’s a faster adoption rate than fitness trackers, smartwatches and even the omnipresent smartphone.

However, maybe it’s not the most surprising thing when you think about it. Voice is the one thing we begin training the moment we come screaming out of the delivery room and into the world. We learn to talk long before we write, read or operate a touchscreen (well, almost).

Speaking to our devices is the logical next step because it’s the most frictionless experience we can have if the devices are willing and able to not just hear us – but really listen.

Our little one is shouting at the speaker again - Moana’s “You’re Welcome” is now blaring from the room at the end of the corridor. She has managed to get what she wanted out of Alexa through some very basic argument - and I don’t blame her really - you see to her, there is no such things as “the internet of things” (or IoT) there are just... things. And in this one there happens to be a lady that can play her music, tell us the weather or turn on the bedroom light.

“Hey it’s OK, it’s OK, You’re Welcome…”, who knew “The Rock” had those kind of pipes.

 

 

It makes me wonder, though, with all this worry about artificial intelligence maybe we need to start thinking about artificial empathy.

What happens when, in a few short years’ time, we phone through or Skype call to a video-based Alexa bot and can’t tell the difference between a digital avatar and a human answering the phone or video call.

Will we be teaching digital manners in primary school, and how to behave when talking to virtual assistants? Maybe all it will take is one big leak, breach or bad actor to bring the whole thing crashing down around us, but I don’t think that is likely.

Convenience is a compelling master, able to silence even the loudest detractor crying wolf over privacy, security and portrayals of a Wall-E style future of lazy boy-bound Netflix-addicted automatons.

For now, we may still be driving our cars, picking up our own groceries and choosing our own outfits, but the assistants are coming to “help” quicker than we may think. This year’s CES (Consumer Electronics Show) in Vegas was awash with smart cookers, fridges, washing machines and - of course - cars, all ready and enabled with voice assistant support to help relieve the mundanity of daily life.

Briefcase_James_Poulter_Virtual_Assistant_Lego_Technology_Knomo James carries the Amesbury Briefcase in Black

 

If it can be automated, it will be. Or at least that seems to be the business plans of the world’s tech giants. We will have RFID tagged clothes, broccoli and egg boxes before we know it.

Mrs P has wrestled the kid into her clothes for nursery and they’re heading down the corridor, for just then I hear the last “You’re Welcome” refrain belt from the muscle-bound chest of Mr Johnson, piping through the Echo’s speakers.

I grab my briefcase, thankfully pre-loaded from the day before and go to shout at the thing myself.

“Thanks, have a good day” squawks the little one as she grabs her backpack.

Maybe I worry too much. “You’re welcome” Alexa chirps back, chipper as ever.


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