Say hello to HAL, my new digital voice assistant
Way back in 1968, the Stanley Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odyssey featured a main character that was a forerunner, in a sense, of today’s digital assistants.
The HAL 9000, a supercomputer endowed with artificial intelligence, ran a spaceship and interacted with astronauts using a soft, calm voice and an unblinking red lens for an eye. HAL — short for heuristically programmed algorithmic computer — was the creation of novelist Arthur C. Clarke.
Today’s digital assistants, of course, can be customized with a variety of voices and taught to turn things on or off in the home or play a favorite song.
According to a report on the website Digital Market Asia, China’s consumers are leading the way in using voice assistants.
Citing the study Speak Easy, jointly created by the J. Walter Thompson Innovation Group and Mindshare Futures, the report said the use of voice controls by Chinese for most activities was higher than the global average, “reflecting the strong appetite for voice technology in China”.
Considering that my hightech life doesn’t go much beyond a smartphone and an e-reader, I was amazed at a recent New York Times report describing what voice products from companies like Amazon and Google can do.
You can have these devices read you the day’s top news. You can add to your shopping list, and by downloading an app, it will remind you of what you need when you’re close to the store.
More and more people have multiple devices, and it’s no wonder: You can use them like a linked intercom to call the kids to supper.
Feel like relaxing? They can walk you through a guided meditation. If you want to hear an uplifting story, say “Tell me something good”. If you want to have a natural conversation, set the device so that you don’t have to start every sentence with your digital assistant’s name.
OK, admittedly, all this sounds pretty cool. The Speak Easy report even found that 43 percent of smartphone users “think voice technology will free us up from our dependency on the mobile to allow us to interact more with the world around us”.
That is, people won’t have their noses glued to their phones as much, at least theoretically.
But I submit that there is another side to all this. For one, there is the risk of falling in love with a disembodied voice.
“Almost half (43 percent) of regular voice technology users globally say that they love their voice assistant so much that they wish it were a real person,” Digital Market Asia reported, citing the study.
Another trend from the study’s summary is that consumers express the desire to give up control to their intangible companion. “Voice assistants will start to take on a more prominent role, managing consumers’ lives proactively, making decisions independently, and (they) will essentially evolve into ‘digital butlers’.”
That reminds me of how things went with HAL.
In the film, when astronauts David Bowman and Frank Poole whisper to each other that they may disconnect HAL because it (or is it “he”?) appears to be malfunctioning, HAL reads their lips and decides to disconnect them. Matt Prichard