Say hello to HAL, my new dig­i­tal voice as­sis­tant

China Daily (USA) - - SECOND THOUGHTS - Contact the writer at matthew­prichard@chi­nadaily. com.cn

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

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