A voice assistant is a digital speaker that can execute tasks through voice commands using voice recognition, language processing and speech synthesis technology to help users with daily tasks (techtarget). They are commonly used today to complete easy tasks such as answering general questions, playing music and adding items to shopping lists. Due to their increased popularity, they are becoming more sophisticated. Some are now being built on cognitive computing allowing them to understand and carry out multi-step requests such as booking movie tickets (Medium). Although still just in their early stages of development voice assistants have exploded onto the technology scene and into our homes almost instantly and without us realising it’s there. Although you might not use Siri on your phone, I’m sure you know how to or have friends who talk to their smart speakers as if it were a real person. But do these assistants help us or just encourage us to live out a fantasy where everything is done for us without lifting a finger? In this report, I will evaluate the increased popularity of voice assistants and how social shaping has adapted their uses and target audience. Also, exploring ideas on how technology will progress as it becomes more accepted by society. The first form of sophisticated voice assistant technology was the “IBM shoebox” in 1961, which could recognise 16 words and 9 digits – laying the foundation for voice assistants. Flash forward to today where the most popular devices have a 95% accuracy (medium). Not bad for just 60 years of development. Partnerships with Chinese manufacturers in recent years has also meant that modern assistants are far more affordable, which has contributed to the 40% YoY growth in 2018 and allowed them to become a household item for the average home. With the introduction of Siri in 2011, we saw the first of modern age voice assistants, followed by Amazon’s Echo, Google Home and Apple Homepod. Soon becoming the most successful smart speakers we know today. At some point, all technology has been new and seen as strange. An example is this quote from the principles publication 1815 – “students today depend on paper too much. They don’t know how to write on slate without getting chalk dust all over themselves. They can’t clean a slate properly. What will they do when they run out of paper?”(Truth or Fiction). The things we take for granted so easily were new and judged at some point even paper. Look at us now it’s not important to know how to write on a slate or know how to clean one as paper can be manufactured in so many ways, we don’t need to worry so much about it running out and is largely being replaced by PC anyway. that brings into question, does it matter if we become more reliant on voice control? With paper becoming the new slate and computers and tablets the new paper. Voice assistances increased popularity over the past few years, it makes sense that voice control AI’s will become the new PC’s, even if that might seem like an alien concept today. In a 2019 interview with Ben Fisher, he explained how PC’s won’t be needed as we become more used to using technology such as Alexa and smartphones that take away the extra work that comes with typing, it’s a frictionless easy way to answer questions and get what you want quickly (acast). Voice control, while still in its early stages has already been accepted by society, normalised by being on almost every smartphone. We have become used to this technology even if Siri isn’t everyone’s go-to for looking something up the more accustomed society becomes to asking smart speakers questions, they are more likely to use Siri as talked about in the voicebox podcast episode 106 (acast). we also need to question that as voice assistants, such as smart speakers become more popular in the average home, introduced as a handy gadget for parents to make life easier, how this will affect children today that are growing up with this being the norm. They’ve never known any different and as voice assistance progresses’ we need to consider how this will affect the next generation. Not only will they lose skills that we probably don’t even realise we have but If a child is interacting with robots more than humans at an early age then it’s likely to stunt their social and emotional development due to a voice assistants answers being based on facts not, emotions (Digitalcare.org). Going back to the 1815 Principles Publication quote he asks “…what will they do if they run out of paper?” well what will they do if the internet crashes? Or a power cut? Not having paper is one thing but what if your whole life depended on AI and voice assistants? Society has influenced the way we use voice assistants in such a way that they have become crucial for some users’ everyday lives. The movement is only in its early stages but can already be seen used in business and medical fields (voicebot.ai). They can be used by patients as a time-saving way to get 24-hour care on demand which would be ideal for people with chronic diseases, rural patients who can’t access a doctor due to transport or weather and disabled patients who maybe aren’t capable of getting in by themselves. Voice assistants also work in favour of the doctors as it saves them time from taking notes, processing data and assessing records. Which ultimately helps to save time so doctors and nurses can speed up the patient waiting time. Voice assistants are also becoming more widely used in business in environments such as labs where protective gloves and suits are worn and pushing buttons or searching things up isn’t practical. Also, meeting environments voice control can be used to lookup related facts quickly, search up data far quicker than a human could and adding meetings to calendars without distracting people (HealthcareITnews). Society believes that technology is what shapes society but its society that shapes technology, Voice assistants use in medical and business fields is an example of society adapting technology to fit its needs (The social shaping of technology). Have we accepted voice assistants into society so easily because it’s just become the norm and its weird not to or are, they really beneficial to our lives and genuinely improve our quality of living? One thing is for sure, they do make life easier. If you run out of time doing a task on your PC through the use of voice assistants you could just continue where you left off using your cars assistant or walking down the street with headphones. This system allows for handless and smooth transitions while completing everyday online tasks (acast). One of the main fears with the increased use of voice assistants is that society becomes lazy, but it could also be making us dumber? When you ask an Alexa a question you get ONE straight answer and its usual spot on. There’s no longer a need to research or go out of your way to look up things and scroll through millions of sites before you find the answer. We no longer need to read pages of information to find one fact, how can we know what we are all missing out on and what we aren’t learning that we might have with a simple google search? There have been issues with how AIs and voice assistants are programmed as they are “always listening”. Voice assistants learn by storing everything they hear as data in one place, this data is then used so that newer AI’s can be more accurate. Quite a lot of people see this as an invasion of privacy and are uneasy about where all their information and private conversations are going. However, there have also been examples of Smart speakers being used in crime investigations (Thompson reuters), by tracking our searches and analysing patterns of internet movement. Without the AI assistants constantly tracking and learning then they wouldn’t be so accurate, so if society wants a future with Voice assistants then we have to accept that they are always going to be listening. Nearly everything we use from TVs to fridges will have their voice assistants and future generations won’t understand a world where everyday household appliances didn’t talk back to them (smart sheet), the new normal will be talking to objects. We are a few years away from this point but with growth rates of 390 million voice assistants in our homes in 2015 to an expected 1.8 billion by 2021 who can deny a rapid change in the way we do things. Not only household appliances will have to change their design to keep up with voice control but also websites. They will need to be redesigned in a way where voice navigation is possible as well as voice search. When doing online shopping all you have to do is watch a screen and talk (acast). No typing. Voice assistants are the way forward, they’re here to stay and grow. No one can deny how much they help with everyday tasks and how much time they save us, we just need to be productive with the time we gain and not become lazy or reliant on this technology because no matter how advanced it becomes it’s still technology that relies on internet and Wifi which can crash from forces out of our control. If voice assistants stay as handy tools that make our lives just that little bit simpler and not a lifeline, there should be no issues with its popularity increasing as it becomes more sophisticated.
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