Hey, Alexa — what’s the future of voice technology?

Tuesday , January 23, 2018 - 4:00 AM

DAVID FERRO, special to the Standard-Examiner

Weber State University history professor Eric Swedin recently noted he has students who have never seen the old blinking cursor where you used to enter text on a computer. It’s known as a command line interface — and most don't know what that is by either name or function. It’s possible that someday his students won't know about a keyboard or mouse either.

Experts can see a future where voice technology is everywhere — your wrist, your home, your car. Older interfaces like keyboards will likely be less utilized.

On Jan. 25 and 26, WSU’s College of Engineering, Applied Science & Technology and the voice company Witlingo will host the first Lingofest — a two-day conference that focuses on the future of building voice interfaces. The conference will mix academics from many fields and voice-industry experts from companies such as Amazon, Google and Comcast.

At Weber State, we strive to engage our students with the latest technology. Last year we became the first university to have an Alexa skill. You can try it yourself if you have an Echo or Dot. Search for the “Weber State” skill at alexa.amazon.com. The skill will allow you easy access to the latest news about EAST.

This year, at Lingofest, the college will announce its commitment to working with industry and academic partners to create a voice-centered technology certificate.

Lingofest is a multidisciplinary conference because building voice interfaces requires more than programming skills. It requires knowledge of language, dialogue, and human behavior. One voice team at Microsoft Cortana hired playwrights and a poet. A Google team hired a writer from the satirical website The Onion.

The first day of Lingofest will help build the real skills needed to create voice interfaces. Day two will explore the implications of a world where we are surrounded by assistants who interact with us through the spoken word.

The number of people looking for voice interfaces is increasing. Google and Amazon sold tens of millions of their home units this past Christmas season. The number of tasks possible increases daily. Google claims its Assistant can accomplish more than a million tasks, from highlighting calendar events to interfacing with smart lights in the home.

The potential for building voice interfaces to devices of all kinds — tools, appliances, vehicles — is also increasing rapidly. Many product developers have taken advantage of developer kits. You can find voice interfaces on everything from LG refrigerators to Bose headphones — in 400 million-plus units, according to Google.

Not everyone champions the technology. Voice communication appears uniquely human. The human ear is attuned to nuance, inflection, tone. Voice assistants might seem intelligent when working correctly, but perhaps even dumber than other technologies when not. Many folks who tried Siri when it was introduced back in 2011 never returned to the technology, although it has improved considerably. Culture plays a role as well. For example, most Japanese frown on talking into a phone in public — whether it be to a human or robot agent.

Some people express concerns about privacy. Amazon indicates that the units do not record information when waiting to hear a hot word such as “Alexa.” However, a bug discovered last fall in the Google Home Mini did exactly that, and it gave people pause. Fortunately, the company fixed the bug before shipping to consumers. Another concern is security. The more devices connected to the internet, the more likelihood for hackers and mischief.

Any new technology has its effects and creates disruption, of course. WSU anthropology professor Mark Stevenson will join the conference to ask global questions as to the value of the technology. Does it help with the underemployed? Does it help homelessness?

Voice technology that replaces workers might lead to unemployment. However, freeing people to do more intricate and interesting work improves lives. This has occurred with help desks that allow companies to offer better service. Most applications of voice at this point seem to augment existing human-computer action, and artificial intelligence is a long way from replacing humans, if ever.

As to homelessness, one could look to another technology — tablets — for an example. Some of our own computer science students have built a tablet application that helps shelters in California track and help the homeless. Who knows what we can create with voice interfaces? Only our imaginations limit us.

It will be fun to debate and discover the future at Lingofest2018.com. It’s open to everyone who’s open to possibilities.

Dr. David Ferro is dean of the College of Engineering, Applied Science & Technology at Weber State University. Twitter: @DavidFerro9

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