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.