A rude awakening for voice technology

2018 was Amazon Alexa’s biggest year yet, doubling the number of sales in 2019 to over 100 million with both Amazon’s own devices and third-party hardware. Over the holiday period, the Amazon Echo Dot, in particular, exceeded Amazon's most optimistic expectations. Amazon’s SVP of devices and services, Dave Limp told The Verge they were “pushing pallets of Echo Dots onto 747s and getting them from Hong Kong to here as quickly as we possibly could” but the Echo Dot wasn’t restocked until February.

I was, in fact, one of the lucky recipients of the Dot this Christmas thanks to my mum, who won’t mind too much if I reveal that we just celebrated her 70th birthday. While I didn’t get a chance to set it up for a few days, the fact that the Alexa companion app was the most downloaded app on both Google Play and Apple App Store shows just how popular the gift was.

Three months down the line I’m wondering how much longer Alexa will sit on the kitchen bench.

To give you some context, I have two boys aged 5 and 3. Most parents of under 5s are grappling with a number of issues of being parents to young kids; sleep routines, limiting TV, reading books, transitioning to school, eating the right foods, being kind and gentle to your siblings and, of course, instilling good manners.

We spent the first day of having Alexa getting used to the idea of being able to play a song on command or setting a timer for your pasta or getting a news flash (albeit from New Zealand at first). The following day my 5-year-old spent most of the day more or less shouting at the Dot “Alexa, play the Star Wars theme song” which it dutifully did without complaint or querying why it needed to do so 10 times in a row.

The next major interaction with Alex involved a series of less successful commands being met with confusion or incorrect actions on the part of Alexa. Before long, my eldest said, “Daddy, your electronic friend isn’t listening”.

That night I was chatting to him, “Can we make it into a robot and give it arms and legs so it can do stuff for us?” he asked. Here I am just trying to keep up with technology and here’s my 5-year-old making it as the brains for a robot servant he has dreamt up.

It sparked a thought: not once have we said “Please” or “Thank you” to our new family member – or in reality, our life servant.

I read in an article recently “now, technology will help us deal with our bad habits” and I have to say, I totally disagree. For all the good technology will have on our lives, technology may, in fact, make for a generation with incredibly bad habits, void of any manners and more or less talking to every(real)body like they’re a servant too.

Even with Google’s assistant, we use the activation words for “OK Google” – something I find infuriating. If we are creating a generation that thinks it is OK to start requests with OK and to also drop pleases and thanks you, then in my humble opinion we are as a society destined to dissolve.

In essence, we are losing what makes us human: the niceties we observe in society builds relationships and forms bonds. We don’t bark every order we give and with the rise of voice technology our children are learning that it is indeed the “normal” way to get what you ask for.

I believe we need to anthropomorphise tech in order to keep our humanity. In order to bring technology into the fold, we need to continue this. Voice technology is fast becoming the mainstream way we interact with tech hardware and without bringing the elements of polite society into this communication we’re creating a new culture that moves us further from what it means to be human.

After all, there is a reason Amazon named their software “Alexa” and not “R2-D2”.

Or perhaps this is just the next nail in the coffin of bad manners being instilled by technology, first it was eating dinner in front of the TV, texting not talking, mobiles at the dinner table… what a sad future we would be willingly walking into.

Don’t get me wrong, I love technology and the difference it can make in our lives but I DO want to see brands and tech owners continue to put humans and human connection at the centre of development – even if it is simply making Alexa only respond when you ask “Alexa, please play the Star Wars theme song.”

Dominic McCarthy is managing partner at The Leading Edge.

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