Like casting a magic spell, it lets people control the world through words alone
ANY sufficiently advanced technology, noted Arthur C. Clarke, a British science-fiction writer, is indistinguishable from magic. The fast-emerging technology of voice computing proves his point. Using it is just like casting a spell: say a few words into the air, and a nearby device can grant your wish.
The Amazon Echo, a voice-driven cylindrical computer that sits on a table top and answers to the name Alexa, can call up music tracks and radio stations, tell jokes, answer trivia questions and control smart appliances; even before Christmas it was already resident in about 4% of American households. Voice assistants are proliferating in smartphones, too: Apple’s Siri handles over 2bn commands a week, and 20% of Google searches on Android-powered handsets in America are input by voice. Dictating e-mails and text messages now works reliably enough to be useful. Why type when you can talk?
This is a huge shift. Simple though it may seem, voice has the power to transform computing, by providing a natural means of interaction. Windows, icons and menus, and then touchscreens, were welcomed as more intuitive ways to deal with computers than entering complex keyboard commands. But being able to talk to computers abolishes the need for the abstraction of a “user interface” at all. Just as mobile phones were more than existing phones without wires, and cars were more than carriages without horses, so computers without screens and keyboards have the potential to be more useful, powerful and ubiquitous than people can imagine today.
Voice will not wholly replace other forms of input and output. Sometimes it will remain more convenient to converse with a machine by typing rather than talking (Amazon is said to be working on an Echo device with a built-in screen). But voice is destined to account for a growing share of people’s interactions with the technology around them, from washing machines that tell you how much of the cycle they have left to virtual assistants in corporate call-centres. However, to reach its full potential, the technology requires further breakthroughs—and a resolution of the tricky questions it raises around the trade-off between convenience and privacy.
Race and redistricting
THE Supreme Court has never taken a stand against gerrymandering, the game in which legislators choose their voters, rather than the other way around. But when states draw electoral district lines using racial considerations, the justices have admonished them not to overdo it. There is no problem with designing “majority-minority” districts to enhance the odds for black and Hispanic voters’ favoured candidates—the Voting Rights Act of 1965 required some such efforts—but when electoral maps reflect a “predominant” reliance on race, they violate the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment. The upshot: states had better pay attention to race when drafting electoral maps—but not too much attention.
Threading that needle has been the challenge of state legislatures for decades, and in two related cases on December 5th, the justices seemed exasperated by their perennial role as overseers of those efforts. Justice Stephen Breyer said he had hoped that a ruling in 2015 regarding racial gerrymandering in Alabama “would end these cases in this court”. But that decision, he rued, “certainly doesn’t seem to have” accomplished the goal. The justices seem destined to more stints of “reviewing 5,000-page records”, he said. Justice Samuel Alito added that the legal standard is “very, very complicated” and serves as “an invitation to litigation”.
Over half of all American states have taken some steps to legalise marijuana, a move The Economist has argued for since 1989. There is now a burgeoning industry being shaped by a new generation of cannabis capitalists.
The glass-ceiling index
IF YOU are a working woman, you would do well to move to New Zealand—or if that is a little out of the way, you could try one of the Nordic countries. To mark International Women’s Day, The Economist has compiled its own “glass-ceiling index” to show where women have the best chance of equal treatment at work. Based on data mainly from the OECD, it compares five indicators across 26 countries: the number of men and women respectively with tertiary education; female labour-force participation; the male-female wage gap; the proportion of women in senior jobs; and net child-care costs relative to the average wage. The first four are given equal weighting, the fifth a lower one, since not all working women have children. New Zealand scores high on all the indicators. Finland does best on education; Sweden has the highest female labour-force participation rate, at 78%; and Spain has the smallest wage gap, at 6%. The places not to be are South Korea and Japan, partly because so few women hold down senior jobs (though the new president of South Korea is a woman).