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We started with voice, and we are going back to voice

Amazon Echo has been singled out by Wired as one of the defining products of the past decade. Image credit: Amazon

One of the defining characteristics of our human species is the way we communicate using voice. Very few other species have this capability and those having it show a very rudimentary set of “voice messages” (this obviously has a lot to do with the vocal apparatus as well as with the brain …).

It took humans hundred of thousands years to develop other communications means, writing is very recent, in relative terms. Using technology that was invented just “yesterday” we started to communicate via computer, mostly using keyboards (they appeared in the typewriters, back in 1878, but became a mass market communication means just recently).

Typing has become so effective in these last decades that voice has faded in the backstage, I still cannot understand how youngster often prefer short messages, sometimes emoticons, to talking with one another… There is advice on the web on how to terminate a relationship using Whatsapp … It goes beyond my understanding (but I am old…)-

Yet, it seems that the wave is turning. In the past decade voice, mediated by technology, has started to be used more and more … to talk to machines, unfortunately!

Amazon Echo has been identified by Wired as one of the technology defining this decade. Alexa, the soul of Echo, is becoming a common presence in many households. As of 2019 over 20,000 types of devices/products came with Alexa and the number of Alexa instances used worldwide has exceeded 100 million and is likely to double in 2020. Google voice assistant has passed the 1 billion mark, same goes for Siri. Recent statistics indicate that over 50 of US users are no longer typing on their smart phones, they use voice commands. Whatsapp was created to send text messages, now it is more and more used to send “voice” messages.

It really looks like we are going back to voice and I guess we will see this trend to continue in this decade. My bet is that we will have to wait till the next decade to see the keyboard fading away, but the process has started and there is no going back.

What is also interesting is that voice will become the main communication interface to machine and to the ambient. Of course it is not just plain vanilla voice. It includes information processing and artificial intelligence, in other words awareness in machines. This will not just make for an easier and more seamless interaction. I think it will have some perceptual consequences. Machines and ambient are going to be perceived more and more as part of our self, creating a continuous and symbiotic super organism. Will see.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.