Talking Into the Air


Apple HomePod
Photo by Rene Ritchie on Instagram

A lot has been written (and spoken) about a new(ish) technology called Voice Assistants. Don’t know what that is? I bet you actually do. Ever said “Hey Siri, what’s the weather like?” to your phone or “Alexa, play Bruno Mars”? If you have, you’ve interacted with a real-life virtual voice assistant. (See what I did there?)

Amazon has one (Alexa). Apple has one (Siri). Google has one (“Hey Google”). And even Samsung has one (Bixby). With all of these high-profile companies, you’d think we don’t do anything but sit around the house or car all day speaking into the air to no one in particular.

Luckily, we don’t. Because we’d probably be put away in some looney bin if we did.

But these are around, and they seem to be gaining steam in broader popular culture. No longer existing only in tech nerd environments, these devices (and services) have made their way into mainstream households. Amazon’s Alexa, arguably the most popular service out there, was adopted by my mother-in-law before me. Seems strange, doesn’t it it?

Well, yes and no. I must admit, I don’t particularly like them (at least as they are currently implemented). My holdback is not so much a curmudgeonly, get-off-my-lawn resistance. Nor is it a nervous apprehension about privacy and allowing a multi-billion dollar corporation to put a dingus in my house whose sole purpose is to listen to me. (Ok, let’s be fair, a large part of it is the privacy angle. But let’s not get bogged down in that right this particular minute.)

I actually love the idea of a computer being able to interact with me in the same manner that another human being would. What’s unfortunate is that, right now, we’re still in the really early days with this technology. “Conversations” and true human-like interactions are not real with any one of these things. I do want this technology to work. And I want it to be as good as they advertise.

No, my largest hold-up comes from an apprehension that most people would never think about. It comes from the “voice” portion of the phrase “voice assistant”. That part where you have to say, out loud, what you want the assistant to do.

Out. Loud.

That always works out great for stutterers.

A device can now hear me stutter. Hell, it even records it. In its own way, it can even judge me. You see, the built-in functionality has a threshold of silence at the end of your query to know when to stop listening, which is how it knows when to proceed with its response. There is literally a timer counting down until it’s done waiting for you. In a stutterer’s mind, there is ALWAYS a timer going in your head. I feel it when I speak to other people, and I see it in their anticipation of what’s coming next as they listen to me. To give you an idea, this is what goes through my head:

When will it ding at me and cut me off because I blocked and can’t get the next syllable out?
Will it ding now?
Now?
What about now?

Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Ad Infinitum.

The pressure is ever-present. That pressure just adds more pressure to get it out, which adds even more pressure to do it quickly. “Now. Quickly. They’re waiting. It’s going to ding any second now. Do it. Get it out. Say it. Say it, you moron.”

That inner dialogue never stops. And it leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy. A vicious cycle.

Now, not only can I not speak normally to another human being, I can’t even speak normally to a frickin’ machine. Fuck.

In my own life, the version of this technology I use the most comes from Apple’s Siri. And most of that comes from the Messages app in the CarPlay system in my car. (I’ve been meaning to write something on how I use Siri more in my car by a factor of 10 than I ever do from my phone.) It reads my messages to me, and I can formulate my response by simply speaking into the air.

It’s a great piece of technology. Specifically in the car, as it frees your hands from fiddling with the phone. At the same time, it’s so frustrating when I get to a block in my speech pattern, and Siri will stop and begin to repeat what I just said. Unfinished, broken sentence and all. And I have to either send the sentence fragment, thus clueing in the person on the other end of the message that I have fucked up in speaking to the dingus, or I have to start over and say all of it again. And what if I fuck that one up, too? Start again? Send the fragment and send a follow-up message? What about the next time? And the next time?

See where this goes…

It’s enough to make me WANT to pick up my phone and just let my fingers do the talking for me. Lord knows, it’ll be quicker, sharper, and more concise.

Oh yeah, and less humiliating.

In my tech nerd circles, mostly on podcasts that I listen to, these voice assistants are lauded as the way our devices should be interacting with us. Getting the smartphone or laptop out of the way seems to be viewed as “better” in the long run. And maybe they’re right, for most people.

I’d just ask them to realize that some of us on the other end of the microphone don’t necessarily see this as a good thing. We either can’t speak to these things, or would honestly rather not.

And you know what, that should be ok, too.

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