We Are Now Entering Alexa’s Voice-Enabled World
Voice control isn’t new, but it is helping to create a new world, one in which your voice holds the keys to your home, office and car. Daniel Davies takes a look at what Alexa’s voice-enabled world means for accessibility and users’ experiences
By now you’re probably pretty familiar with Amazon’s Alexa. You have one of the voice-driven computers in your home or, at the very least, you know someone who has one, so you’re pretty aware of what it can do; it plays music, tells jokes, answers questions and controls a limited number of smart appliances, right?
Right, but Alexa has plans to do so much more; Alexa has plans to take over the world. Not in an autocratic way, but rather Alexa has plans to incorporate itself in as many appliances and devices as possible, so that the world becomes voice enabled.
Amazon isn’t planning on achieving this goal alone, and has already enabled third-party developers to get in on the act and design new tools for Alexa that will allow it to be everywhere and anywhere.
We know that Amazon’s voice-enabled world will be powered by machine learning, as Alexa uses it in speech recognition, natural language understanding and learning users’ behaviour, but to find out what a voice-enabled world will really look like, we went to hear from Al Lindsay, vice president of Alexa Engine Software at Amazon.
“We're already seeing Alexa showing up in thermostats and appliances and automobiles, so who knows what's next. Maybe manufacturers will decide to put them into your other household appliances or places,” said Lindsay in a talk at Web Summit.
How Alexa got here
But before looking forward to Alexa’s voice-enabled world, first we need to consider how far Alexa has come in just over three years.
In those three years, Alexa has gone from having zero skills and zero third-party developers writing for it to having over 25 thousand possible applications: from translating different languages to guiding users through making a perfect mojito. As Lindsay explains, that’s a pretty long way from where Alexa began.
“Going back three years it was kind of fun to watch how people were using it when we first launched because we introduced the product under a limited invitation only, so it was hard to get your hands on one and it was impossible to get your hands on two,” said Lindsay.
“One person sent us a picture where they had cut a hole in the wall between the living room and their kitchen and had placed the Echo right in that rectangular hole. They cut a hole in the wall so that they could use the product from both rooms because they couldn't get a second one, and I thought that was pretty awesome.”
Third-party developers and Alexa Voice Service
Fast forward to today and Alexa is on the brink of being ubiquitous. Amazon has achieved this by doing two things: introducing the Amazon Skills Kit, which allows third-party developers to write new capabilities for Alexa and by launching the Amazon Voice Service, which counts among its order tens of thousands of developers building devices that come replete with Alexa.
It is by introducing methods like these that Amazon and its Alexa are moving us into a voice-enabled world.
“I think the headline at CES was Alexa steals the show and they don't even have a booth.”
“I think the headline at CES was Alexa steals the show and they don't even have a booth,” said Lindsay. “It's because we were showing up in so many of our partners' devices or skills being built by partners like BMW or Ford to enable you to control your car, start your car remotely, so there's a lot going on in that space.”
Lindsay revealed that Alexa already has deals in place with BMW and Ford to bring voice activation to their vehicles, so if you buy a Mini in 2018 then you may be able to talk to it through microphones embedded in the cars. Ford has already introduced a line of cars that allows users to sync their Alexa devices so they can remotely unlock or start their car with voice commands.
Using voice to increase accessibility
But who cares about any of this, and why does it matter that we will eventually stop typing on our devices and start speaking to them?
The major gain is in accessibility. Imagine how much easier it will be to teach people unfamiliar with modern technology – such as the elderly – to use devices if they don’t have to learn to navigate programmes and interfaces, but can simply tell a computer what they want it to do.
“From my own anecdotal experience it's a lot easier to teach a senior citizen to speak to a device that they can just speak to like a human and say 'call my son' or 'remind me’ or ‘set an alarm' the same way they would speak to a human,” said Lindsay.
“Whereas, I think adopting new technologies that require you to learn interface paradigms, even if it does involve touch, which does cut down the friction, it's harder. There's a learning curve; I don't think there's a learning curve with speech. We go through that very early in life and we've all become adept at it.”
“I don't think there's a learning curve with speech. We go through that very early in life and we've all become adept at it.”
It’s not just the elderly who will benefit from a voice enabled world. At the other end of the spectrum, children, at younger and younger ages, will be able to communicate with devices, which is a phenomenon Lindsay is already hearing about from coworkers whose children have grown up with Alexa in their home.
“To them it's normal to talk to devices, and I hear these anecdotes of their kids walking up to the fridge and speaking to it and being confused that the fridge isn't speaking back or able to respond to their request because they expect it. It's just a normal part of the environment that's been with them since they were born; it's interesting to see the change,” said Lindsay.
The voice-enabled hotel
You walk in to your hotel, tired and jetlagged; previously, you probably had to go around making, testing and trying things to work out how they work. In Alexa’s voice-enabled world though, everything is controlled by the same thing it is in your home: your voice.
Want the TV to work? Tell it to switch on. Want the blinds open? Tell them to lift. Want a wakeup call in the morning? Say it to your room and it shall be done. Amazon already has a partnership with the Wynn Casino in Las Vegas, so this version of the future isn’t far away from reality. But don’t expect it to be limited to just your hotel room, because the voice enabled world will exist wherever you are.
“It's going to appear in all of the devices, and throughout your home and your car and your place of work, and when you go to a hotel room you'll use your voice to control your environment and the world around you.”
“Our vision is voice is a natural interface and is going to be in everything that we do in the future,” said Lindsay. “It's going to appear in all of the devices, and throughout your home and your car and your place of work, and when you go to a hotel room you'll use your voice to control your environment and the world around you, so it's just a natural interface for doing that.
“You don't have to learn to use your voice to speak to technology. If you can speak to it in a conversational way like you would speak to another human, so you don't have to retrain on how to use your voice when you walk into a hotel room to open the blinds or set your alarm; you would just ask the way you would another human, and I think we're seeing a whole ecosystem of development happening, not just at Amazon but around voice in general, and that future is getting closer. I'd say it's only a few years away where it's common.”
Images courtesy of Amazon