How talking to recognition technologies will change us

Ernest Hemmingway once said, “I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen.” Perhaps, like most of the things we do, technology will absolve us of that requirement too – it will listen for us. In fact, it seems that soon, technology will be listening to us all the time, everywhere.

Whether we’re talking to Siri, Cortana, Jibo, Google, Alexa, or one of many other “recognition” technologies designed to understand and respond to our speech, there are an increasing number of things listening.

As a species, voice has always been the primary way we communicate (with apologies to body language experts everywhere.) The use of voice to ask questions, exchange ideas, and issue instructions is profoundly, although not uniquely, human. It appears that as far back as 300,000 years ago ancient human ancestors where beginning to communicate through the use of a language of some kind. And we haven’t stopped since.

So commanding the world around us through the use of language is natural. Once devices are smart enough, there are a lot of advantages to telling them what to do rather than having to show them, by clicking, dragging, poking, pinching and swiping. For one, it leaves our hands free to do something more important, like grip the wheel of the car, or at least open a fresh bag of chips.

Most importantly, in the home and office environment, it cuts the tether that currently exists between us and the technology we are interacting with. No longer will we have to walk over to a device to interact with it. We’ll be able to tell it what to do, and let it get on with it.

Home IoT technology, whether that’s a Google Nest, an Amazon Echo, or the cute-and-chipper Jibo, offer the promise of managing your home life (or at least your shopping habit) without needing to manually interact with many of the actual devices.

Yelling “Hey Siri” or “OK, Google” is a first step in this direction, but of course we can (and therefore inevitably will) go much further. Technology that listens to us will permeate our homes, cars, and offices. There’s already smartcards for office workers that listen to the conversation around them and figure out how to make you more productive, what the general mood is, and what people are working on.

Which leads us to the inevitable question – who exactly are we talking to? Because of course, we’re not really talking to a device at all. Rather, we’ll be communicating with an entire eco-system of services, all tuned to parse our words, our gestures, and therefore our desires. And all that data will aggregate over time to let the masters of those same services understand us more profoundly than we could possibly imagine today.

Take that next logical step and your home automation device (or devices) of choice will quickly want to follow suit. Why bother having to tell the TV (another device who increasingly will be eavesdropping on your fireside chat) what channel to watch, when your home automation center can decide, based on what its hearing, what kind of mood you’re in, who’s in the room with you, and therefore what it should recommend for entertainment?

Listening devices offer the opportunity to far more deeply understand us as consumers, customers and people. And the ability to respond through speech and activity, Jibo-like, will make us more and more comfortable with sharing more and more with these machines.

The machines will know us better than anyone because, unlike everyone else, they will be with us 24/7. Our online footprint will be immense, because every facial twitch, every roll of the eye, every suppressed yawn will be stored, reviewed and quietly filed.

And we’ll be happy to share it.

We’re trained to share with tech – to have radio stations build playlists for us, to have websites suggest things we might be interested in, or would like to buy, all based on our behavior. So the idea that the IoT-enabled devices in our home would learn about us, would listen and respond, is really only a short, highly convenient step away. And as low-power, convenient technology for voice recognition designed for IoT devices becomes available, so the ease with which everything around us can listen in becomes even greater.

Of course, the obvious questions about who can also listen in, and who gets to keep a copy of our inner-most desires, is really at the root of concerns over this trend – this move to ever smarter, ever more engaged technology.

Can we trust the machines to only listen when we want them to? If we trust the manufacturers, can we trust that the devices themselves are sufficiently secure to fend of malicious hacking attacks? And even if all the above is true, can we also trust governments not to extend the long arm of national security interest into our private conversations? Does it even matter? If we are happy to share, should we really worry about the privacy implications?

As the IoT starts to become part of our daily lives, we will need to become comfortable with, not only the devices themselves, but also the constant trade-off we must make between utilizing the promise of the IoT, and managing the loss of control and privacy it will entail.

Will trade privacy for services!
The full value of the IoT isn’t that it’s just a bunch of smart gadgets sitting around talking to each other – the real impact is the way the IoT will change the fundamentals of how we think about and interact with technology.

Because no longer will we go log in, or switch on when we want to do something. Instead the IoT will surround us with a smart, communicating and response fabric that manages and monitors almost everything we do, that build products better, controls our environment, and deals with our wants and needs, often before we are aware of them fully.

The IoT, in other words, delivers the full promise of its value when it is completely embedded in our world. And that process requires us to open the door to a very different way of thinking about information, and especially privacy.

Ultimately, we’re doing what we, especially in the west, have been doing for a very long time: we’re trading. I have something to sell – access to my thoughts and needs, and you have something to give me for it – better services, more targeted offers, cut rate delivery, more interesting TV viewing, maybe safer homes and smarter kids.

There’s actually nothing wrong with choosing the hand over some of our privacy to the next generation of smart tech (or, to be optimistic, probably the generation after that) but we need to do so with open eyes. And when they tell us what these devices do, and how they do it – when they explain what kinds of information they gather and who the device shares it with – we better listen very closely.

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