comscore The obsession with voice assistant speakers needs a wake-up call
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The obsession with voice assistant speakers needs a wake-up call

It's time to be practical about voice-assistant speakers. Let a speaker be a speaker.

voice assistant speakers

I remember an evening six years ago. I was sitting with colleagues. The new iPhone around, we’d met this new tech marvel named Siri. She was witty and clever. We could throw any question at her, and she’d respond back with a witty response. As we Indians are used to describing our leisure activity, Siri was ‘time pass’. But that was the beginning of our new found obsession of talking to machines, but more importantly see them respond. It’s the ultimate fantasy of the ’80s kid. Also Read - Happy Father's Day 2021: Google Doodle wishes dads with cute pop-up greeting card

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The first time I heard Siri respond, it was damn entertaining. You know what I mean, right? I’m sure you’re my partner in crime too. At least in spirit. As long as there’s someone with access to an iOS device in a group, the task at hand is to test Siri’s grit and intelligence.

Waiting for bots

Websites have made Siri’s responses popular. What began as intelligent responses, soon became the means towards better productivity. We thought we’d have a more productive life because these bots would simplify life for us. All tech companies are guilty of this. Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon. All of them. I’m waiting for a Facebook assistant now. Other than getting me to waste productive time, I doubt if a Facebook assistant would help me with productivity. I think an LinkedIn assistant would be of better use. It could probably find me important and worthwhile contacts. Now if you’re a fan of one of these companies, you’d go out of your way to back them up. You’d no doubt claim that your productivity levels just went off the roof because of the help rendered to you by these bots. ALSO READ: Samsung reportedly working on a Bixby-powered smart speaker to take on Amazon Echo, Apple HomePod

The flaw in our utopian cause

Now a bot is pointless to me, unless I could simply tell Siri (or any of the other popular assistants) to turn my phone to mute. When I’m in a meeting. And not show me the settings page instead, and ask me to do the rest. Or let’s think of a real world problem situation. This is the season of the yearly rains in India, and Indians do shed a tear or two while filing their annual taxes. Shouldn’t a bot be capable of effectively filing taxes in a jiffy?

Of course, and I do realize that it’s all got to do with the APIs at its disposal. Irrespective of how effective the bots are, it won’t be able to do anything if it’s not able to communicate with the Income Tax department’s database. For every pressing real world problem, there’s a concern of privacy or some such concern that holds the cause of innovation, and prevents it from becoming the one solution to all our problems. That’s the flaw in our utopian cause.

Since you’re sleeping over your taxes right now, don’t you wish you could call out to your preferred platform, “Hey <Siri/Cortana/Google/Alexa> find my Form 16 for this year.” You’d want it to do the needful, but then realize your Form 16 is a password protected PDF document. Oops! It works for everything else. But this. It deserves the benefit of doubt in a stressful situation like this.

Genius or greed?

How about another query — A family member who’s undergoing medical treatment, and is probably on prescription medication. Teraflops of computational intelligence ought to help the sick. Let’s assume the patient receives machine readable prescriptions from the local doctor. You could simply call out to your favorite assistant, and ask it to order medicines from your favorite pharmacy. Because the intelligence in the cloud knows when your medicine inventory is getting exhausted.

But what would really happen? The interface between your local chemist and Alexa/Siri/Google or Cortana would be missing. Or even if it were working, you would probably be able to order medicines from chemist A using Alexa, but chemist B using Cortana. Because chemist A and B are fierce rivals. Reminds me of how you get Pepsi at KFC, but Coca-Cola at McDonald’s! Technology capabilities are spoken about on the demo stage. But reality is governed by marketing strategy.

So where exactly are these fancy speakers helping you? Ironically, in the markets where these speakers are useful, you’re unlikely to have to buy critical medications over a counter or a website. Needing a speaker for asking traffic routes and times seems counterproductive. When I’m in a hurry, I usually just rush. I don’t have the presence of mind, or patience to evoke the botlord, and ask what time will it take me to get from point A to point B. That’s where my smartphone is practical enough. And if convenience was the topic of discussion, wouldn’t I rather have a speaker system that simply connects to my phone? Practically my phone could just do everything. Just make the standards open to let speaker companies talk to all of the popular engines. You could even have a subscription to use Alexa, Cortana, Google or Siri.

Accents aside, these voice assistant don’t make any sense in India for a simple reason. It’s really a hassle. The system will take ages to understand context in India. And if you’re compelled to bring the defence of Cortana, which did a brilliant job understanding the context of Sachin Tendulkar and cricket in India, well, no, that’s not enough. I’d rather ask my voice assistant, how I could make aloo parathas with half the calories, or what’s the delay in Mumbai’s local trains right now. The challenge however is seeing local train networks talking to these assistants. Then comes along another problem. Is information such as this a matter of national security? It’s real-time network information of a public utility service. After all, I don’t have access to street view in India, right? RELATED: Amazon Alexa with Echo smart speaker to launch in India later this year: Report

I think in the current scenario, the one sole reason to have these voice-assistant speakers is because they are trophy gadgets. They come in handy when you can impress friends over dinner on how swift you are in adopting the newest technology around. For every urge to buy a product like this, there’s a self defense mechanism that kicks in. There’s a constant conflict within, reinstating that you don’t need this product.

Every time you tell yourself no, you don’t need them, there’s some lust within saying, some cool tech won’t hurt after all. This is the dilemma of the tech slave. We’re victims of gadget lust. As long as we admit that this piece of tech won’t transform our lives and make it ultra efficient right now, that’s absolutely fine. But don’t defend it because the technology will take years to evolve. Buy it for the sake of splurging. Or maybe just wait till the technology is evolved? ALSO READ: Qualcomm s new reference design will allow third parties to build Apple HomePod-like smart speakers

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  • Published Date: July 5, 2017 10:56 AM IST



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