Google recently announced their new phone. And all the hype was mostly centred around one thing – the Google assistant. A new voice assistant replacing Google Now, and only available on their new Pixel phones. And it’s not just Google. Amazon also tries to get a finger in the pie. They have Echo- a smart speaker system that includes Alexa. And of course there is Siri. They have been paraded in front of us as the new thing in tech. Everyone is excited. According to tech bloggers the future is upon us. There is only one problem.
I don’t care.
Nor does anyone I know. I cannot recall having ever seen someone use a voice assistant (that is – seriously, without alcohol in play). None of my friends use it. Nobody in my family has used it. Yet it is the main selling point for Google’s new phones.
Pixel: also known as Google’s iPhone.
It started to make me wonder if maybe I just had weird friends (a very real possibility). Or maybe it was a cultural thing? How many people actually use voice assistants? Google led me to an article from Creative Strategies. (A company that analyses tech trends).
Although sadly they do not give all their data, they do mention some numbers. For example – the majority of users use Siri and OK Google rarely. (70% of iPhone users, and 62% of android users. )
This means that the main selling point of the Pixel phone is a feature that more than half of the population doesn’t even use.
Is Google just looking to the future? Or have we clamped on too tightly to the old sci-fi technologies, not realising the impracticalities. To come to an answer I tried to figure out what is stopping this technology from becoming mainstream, and if these problems will last.
It feels awkward to talk to your phone
The aforementioned article also mentions where people use their phone. In their own home, 39% uses their voice assistant. In public, this number drops to 6%.
It still feels weird to talk to a machine. Despite the cute names, snarky attitudes and attractive female voices , your voice assistant is nothing more than an algorithm. Talking is an extremely human behaviour and we are not yet used to machines being able to understand us and respond. And there is the issue of privacy. It really isn’t necessary for everybody to hear what messages you send to your friends, or what events you’re planning.
Of course, if voice assistants offer enough advantages, such shame will quickly evaporate (as demonstrated by all people talking loudly on their phone about private family matters. Nowadays your train ticket comes with a free soap opera!)
The question being – are those advantages there?
Note that this problem was fixed, please don’t try this at home.
It’s not necessarily faster.
This depends a lot on the what kind of action you’re trying to perform. But as an example – try sending a Whatsapp message on your phone without touching anything. It will be a laborious project compared to what you’re used to. This is due to some simple facts.
- You can’t listen to two things at the same time.
- You read much faster than standard conversation speed.
Telling your phone to open Whatsapp takes longer than pressing those one or two buttons And when your phone asks you for more information you have to listen to it talking. It can also only tell you one thing at a time while visual feedback can give information through icons or colours, which enables it to give you feedback about more than one thing and allow for quick scanning of the information you want.
However, voice command wins out when it comes to complicated interfaces. There are a limited amount of things on a screen. So if you have a lot of options, you’ll have to hide it in menus and different screens. With voice command you can just say what you want to be done, and you don’t have to go trawling through the menus.
The problem being that right now – we can’t really do that many complicated things with our voice assistants. Most of the tasks they can perform are very simple, basic things. Adding an event to our calendar, or calling someone. These are all things we already do a lot – and so know exactly how to do. A good use for voice command would be obscure settings that are rarely used. These are often hidden behind multiple menus. But Okay Google has no clue about these.
There are some privacy concerns.
Your phone is there. Listening.
It feels awkward having to press a button when you want to give a voice command – so instead your assistant often listens to some group of words that indicates you are talking to it. (Such as ‘ok Google’ . Or ‘computer’ ) . But to pick up these words, it must be listening.
Of course, in theory nothing should be saved when you’re not interacting with your assistant. But you don’t really have a way to check it. You just… have to trust Google to be careful with your privacy.
Which is terrifying.
Everyone can scream something.
Of course – here it was a simple accident. But pranksters will see golden opportunities. And this greatly limits the things a voice assistant is allowed to do. It’s a bad idea to give voice-assistants the permission to delete content, because you only need one drunken asshole tell your voice assistant to remove all images, and all your memories from the last years are gone.
Voice commands could be revolutionary. Maybe even rivalling the graphical user interface. The GUI made computers accessible to anyone without any training. Voice commands could take this even further. When I try to imagine where its place would be in the future, I imagine it as a replacement of the helpdesk. When you encounter a device and do not know what it does, you can simply ask it! Whenever you don’t know how to perform a certain action or find a particular setting, you can ask.
But I don’t believe it’s going to be as universal as Google and Apple seem to believe, simply because the advantages aren’t there. If it was faster, if it was easier, no doubt the voice assistants would quickly invade our daily lives regardless the inconveniences. But for the common tasks of everyday life – it isn’t. I think that even when voice commands are perfected, the majority of the population will still send messages, fill in their calendars and find things using the good old GUI.