Alexa to the Rescue: Considering the Environments in Which We Innovate

Doug Collins - Friday, April 06, 2018

One afternoon last week I picked up my four-year-old daughter from her pre-school.

On the drive home she said, “take me to McDonalds.”

We continued driving home. I had no plans to take her to McDonalds.

When she realized that we were not going to McDonalds, she asked, “Dad, why isn’t the car taking me to McDonalds?”

Her question surprised me. The matter of agency arose in my mind: Who was in control of the car? I checked my hands. They were on the wheel. My foot was on the gas pedal.

After reassuring myself that I had control, I realized that she had become accustomed to directing the Amazon Alexa device that my wife and I had brought into our home several months ago. Our daughter asks Alexa to tell her funny kid’s jokes. She asks Alexa to play her favorite Disney tunes.

Alexa dutifully complies.

On the drive home that afternoon the thought occurred to me that my daughter is the first of a new generation on this planet who expects the manufactured objects in her life—the car, for example—to respond to her voice commands. She enjoys a similar relationship with Google Maps, which she refers to as “Google Lady”: the nice lady who gives mom and dad turn-by-turn directions while driving. It’s not too great of a conceptual leap to imagine Google Lady in the driver’s seat.

By comparison, I am of an age where I view Alexa as something of an anomaly and Siri as something of a nuisance. I do not expect my car to respond to my voice commands. I do not have the patience to train Siri.

In the past I have looked askance at the sweeping, fatuous claims made of the named generations. “Millennials like to wear cotton underwear.” “Baby Boomers prefer to vacation in Palm Springs.” “Generation Z is allergic to soy milk.” And, so on.

However, I find through my own experiences with my daughter that the conceptual frameworks that attempt to describe how certain groups of people expect to experience the world around them do have merit.

For example, I can no longer imagine a toy company coming up with a new product that does not feature voice activation. Or, if the company chose to do so, they would be making the conscious decision to make a “retro” toy that appeals to parental nostalgia. In a similar vein, I could not imagine an amusement park not incorporating voice activation into their rides.

Voice activation becomes the natural, primary interface between human and artificial intelligence.

For a while after bringing Alexa into the house I wondered about its utility. Did we spend money to access an infinite supply of knock-knock jokes and traffic reports? Today, I am beginning to see that Alexa, by design or not, is setting the expectations for the next generation of kids.

That’s powerful. That little device is incredibly powerful—not so much today in what it can do—or, rather, all the things that it cannot do, but in how it sets expectations in younger minds.

One wonders. A couple generations ago, parents made efforts to limiting their kids’ time in front of the television—typically a losing battle. Later, parents made efforts to limit their kids’ time with video games and the web. Will we soon see efforts being made to limit kids’ time with AI-enabled voice activation?

How do we keep the car from going to McDonald’s? Is our voice unique to us, akin to a fingerprint or retinal scan? How would our bank know that it’s us talking to the ATM, requesting to withdraw $1000?

We arrive at our epiphanies through our experiences. My time with my daughter has opened my eyes to the transformative power of voice activation. Whereas in the past, designers and others pursuing certain forms of innovation had to incorporate mechanical and then electromechanical devices and then chip-based functions into their products to meet the basic expectations of the market, it appears as if we have arrived at the time when voice activation becomes the de facto standard. And, voice activation, as the gateway to artificial intelligence, opens a whole world of possibilities, challenges, and questions. To work at the nexus of artificial intelligence, voice activation, and user experience design must be incredibly exciting, now. How does one make artificial intelligence as palatable as interacting with a thoughtful assistant?

Where would I start? I would start with the toys and the amusements. We have begun to raise a whole new generation of kids who expect to engage their world in two-way dialogue.

Doug Hess commented on 07-Apr-2018 01:26 PM
Very interesting article, Doug. I too have an Alexa and am just now beginning to see the larger design they surely had in mind from the start. Amazon's acquisition of companies like Ring and Nest clearly show where this Trojan Horse was headed all along.

My last company, TiVo, has just introduced voice control using a mic in its remote, almost certainly in response to competitive pressures from Comcast, which touts that capability and has for years. But the thing is, I have never understood the attraction of saying something when I can silently, simply, and assuredly press buttons to get the device to do what I want it to.

I have long suspected that voice control is the picture-in-picture of this generation of CE goods: great as a selling feature, but one few will actually use.

But I digress. Your daughter is absolutely at the forefront of a wave of people who will expect something from devices that we never have: informed utility. Not just action, but interaction.

People in your line of work will have to be prognosticators, the Nostrodomises of your day. Where will technology go next? Where people like you tell it to. I do not envy the task ahead of you, but I will watch with fascination.


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