THE INHERENT STRENGTH AND APPARENT FLAW OF 
VOICE-ACTIVATED ASSISTANTS

The washing machine in the utility room beeps to announce the end of a wash cycle. It beeps at a pitch that is hard to ignore, much like a child whining for attention. With other priorities in the list of household chores, I have often wished that I could hush that machine with a voice command such as, ‘O.K, I’ll be there shortly’, so it would silence itself. The beeps, programmed to announce the appliance’s job done status, are frequent in the minutes just after the wash, and irksome. Voice controlling home appliances seems a natural choice to streamline chores, so I looked forward to a voice-activated assistant from the very beginning. I embraced Amazon’s social robot despite its well-known (and bothersome) built-in trait of eavesdropping (and even more bothersome: keeping a written history of all uttered words in Amazon’s databases).

So here’s my perspective from the first thirty days with a voice-activated assistant: the strength and flaw in a robot that has now claims a place at home.

The hands-free-from-device freedom The freedom to access information without holding, flipping, carrying or sitting in front of a device is a significant physiological benefit for the heads-down generation we belong to. With voice activated smart assistants, ‘text neck’, a condition used to describe the pain and damage in the neck caused by looking down at a mobile phone, gets some relief! These devices free our eyes and hands, which are typically affixed and often dedicated to a phone or computer, to do things that social robots aren’t yet proficient at — such as tossing a salad, sorting the papers in your desk or painting a wall. It feels a bit like going back in time to the Radio era, except when you realize that you are the commander-in-chief.

I even used Echo, a.k.a Alexa, to help our daughter with homework. (The flip side of such a smart parental move is that, solving Math with AI support becomes the new after-school norm. This child now wants to direct all homework questions at Echo while pondering the need to know multiplication tables at all). Besides the joy of summoning your favorite music in a way that could pale Aladdin’s Genie, Echo’s easy-to-use features like scheduling reminders, drawing up to-do lists and syncing the family’s calendar do also galvanize a household that is primed to retrieve a device every now and then.

Gender biased Not just Echo but the majority of the voice-activated assistants in the market have a built-in female voice (and name too! — watch this). Nurturing and caring are characteristics of femininity that could be well extended to enhance a robot’s human appeal. However, in the scope of the commander-assistant dynamics that will be played out through such AI empowered devices, it is a pity that the user has no choice to be served in a male voice. It is disappointing to think that the companies that build these assistants preach gender diversity in their talent acquisition programs but don’t consider it to be an essential product feature. Perhaps the buyers are predominantly male, but still, Alexa or Alex should be a user preference!