Conversation in the age of “The Voice”

Conversation in the age of “The Voice”
Behold The Voice. The one that’s talking to you. You hear it, but you can’t figure out where it’s coming from. It reads you the news, answers your questions, responds to your requests on demand, like a digital butler at your service. An invisible robot, a ghost that’s haunting your mobile phone, your router and other electronic devices. It is everywhere and nowhere.

Jenny or John?

The voice can be personalized as desired. Intelligent, she records and learns as she goes. We speak to him in "natural language", as to another human being. Currently, 16% of homes in the United States are equipped with smart speakers, a figure expected to rise to 75% in 2020 (source: VoiceLabs 2017 Voice Report, InfoScout, 2016).

By its ability to carry on a conversation, the speaker gradually becomes a "member of the family" (Nicolas Maynard, national manager of Alexa France). Branding facilitates personification, through a naming that is similar to first names or nicknames, the empathy that the machine develops and a humor that breaks its coldness.

The Promise of a Revolution

The success of smart speakers can first and foremost be explained by its affordable price, but also all its technical ease of use: no prior knowledge is required, and using it is intuitive and hands-free. The device's reaction is instantaneous, and it can be controlled at any time of the day or night. A young parent can order a new pack of diapers by sprinkling talcum powder on the buttocks of his newborn baby.

Technology is Redefining our Interpersonal Relationships.

Brands are intended to be "conversational" (#buzzword), thanks to platforms, chatbots or voice. In his book Wired for Speech. How Voice Activates and Advances the Human-Computer Relationship, MIT Press, 2005, communication specialist Clifford Nass posits that the human brain can rarely can the difference between talking to a machine, even those with very poor understanding and poor language skills, and a person. This is known as the ELIZA effect, named after the chatbot developed in 1966 at MIT, which embodies our tendency to unconsciously assimilate the behavior of a computer to that of a human being, encouraging emotional investment.

But can we really have a conversation with Alexa?

Can we call it a conversation when the other is at our beck and call?

The purpose of The Voice is to respond to our requests, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It doesn't take days off and never complains. No need to say "please, thank you": the usual pleasantries are optional.

There is cause for worry about children who are learning to speak in this day and age. For the rest of us, our social habits remain largely unchanged. At their launch, Siri, Alexa, Cortana and Google Assistant all had female voices, because  “both men and women prefer the sound of a woman's voice” ". We would be conditioned to see women in administrative roles (Adrienne LaFrance, in the Atlantic 2016). Le Monde wonders if “interacting on a daily basis with an artefact interpreting in such a applied way the role of the housewife does not flatter our old phallocratic inclinations, leading to a reinforcement of gender inequalities. "

Besides, is it necessary to assign a genre to a robot? Stanford University asks itself the question in its study "Are computers gender-neutral?" ". The first gender-neutral voice was born this year: Q, whose frequency is always between 145 and 175 Hz, thus avoiding gender extremes.

Can we call it a conversation when we’re busy doing something else?

These voices represent the possibility of using your hands for something else, and it is in this way – with the prospect of busy or unavailable hands – that the technology giants present their innovations to us. Multitasking enthusiasts, can we direct our attention (and mindfulness) towards conversation when cooking, driving or exercising? Is it comparable to the conversation we have with another human being through an earpiece?

Or are they more like bits of words intended for an entity that notes and nods without thinking?

Furthermore, can we use the word "conversation" if the other person can collect private information about us and use it against our will? The smart speaker is like a game of telephone, mixing gossip and undeniable vocal evidence without our knowledge or informed consent (unless you actually read all of the terms and conditions).

Technology is influencing our social relationships – and even trying to replace them

In addition to some commands, The Voice can help remedying exclusion and loneliness, especially among the elderly. Accenture Interactive has developed for the Swedish group Stockholm Exergi a Google Home app that can ask us about our lives, gradually going into more intimate details and then telling our personal story back to us through an audio recording or a book. Information is stored locally to guard against hacking.

Today, conversations seems to be mostly one-way. Some adjustments are still necessary to achieve smooth human-machine communication, and misunderstandings are a common feature of any dialogue. Siri doesn't understand your accent and interprets the wrong word? The robot has been hacked and blurts out hate speech? Mistakes are a fundamental component of human relations. Fortunately, technology is learning, adapting and improving. With Alexa Blueprints, Amazon proposes to customize its vocal assistant so that it reacts as accurately as possible to our requests and makes itself the keeper of the household’s memory, which it will always have at its fingertips, so to speak. Just another way we're further erasing the brand/privacy barrier.