The Societal Benefits of Smart Speakers

They may not open the pod bay doors, but they can get you to look up from your phone

I recently visited my 100-year-old great aunt, who, after living in the same house for 70-plus years, just moved into a retirement community. When I walked into her room, I noticed a little sign on the wall where someone had written “ALEXA” in large letters, and guessed she had an Amazon Echo. Indeed, her daughters had given her an Echo Dot, which has been very helpful given the fact her vision has been deteriorating. Apparently, quite a few residents have them.

A lot of the headlines today about these “smart speakers” are about their negative impact on our society. Concerns about privacy, worries they’re teaching our kids to be obnoxious and rude, and criticism of the fact they are all (for the most part) female are a few of the main incendiary topics.

These are all important things to be talking about, but I want to focus on the good news. (And for the record: if you’re not concerned about the microphone on the phone you carry with you everywhere, then don’t worry about the smart speakers; kids can distinguish between their voice assistants and people; don’t get me started.)

Are these smart speakers just fun gadgets that provide a way to play songs from your Spotify playlist, set timers, and meow like a cat? Or are they truly helpful? And most importantly: are they making the world a better place?

I say yes. In their own small ways, these voice-enabled assistants are bringing people together, making people more independent, and even getting us look up from our phones.

Community

I brought an Amazon Echo into the office one day, and some of my coworkers were definitely skeptical. To ease people in, I made a Skill that asked which floor you worked on, and if you said the second floor, Alexa replied with “BOOM! The second floor is the best!” (Guess which floor I worked on.)

Then we discovered the Jeopardy! Skill. After that, we’d gather around the Echo every afternoon at 4:30 for a round of trivia, which we played as a team. In addition to a nice afternoon break, it bonded us together.

NPR/Edison Research recently conducted a survey of over 1000 smart speaker owners, and discovered a majority of people are using the device with others. Common activities include listening to music together, answering questions, and playing games.

At my house, we have a rule: no devices at the table during dinner. But sometimes, we have questions! For example, what is the longest bridge in the world? (Amazon Echo and Google Home do not always agree on this one.) What time is Erik’s birthday party on Saturday? When do the Olympics begin? When is the library open until? How old was Mark Hamill in 1978? When was the light bulb invented? Who rules the world? (Girls!) What is a yottameter? When does A Wrinkle in Time come out? (These are all real examples of things my family has recently asked our voice assistants.)

If we were to ask these questions by typing on our phones, the person doing the asking would disappear from the dinner table conversation. To the person using their device, it feels like only a brief moment, but to the others around them, it’s visceral: the rest of the conversation grinds to a halt as you wait patiently (or not-so-patiently) for the person to finish and come back to you.

When we ask Alexa or Google Assistant a question, it’s as if they briefly join our conversation. Everyone hears the question asked. Everyone hears the response. It’s almost as if another person dropped by and sat down for a moment to chat.

Even the most digitally-immersed generation, millennials, were found to look down at their phones less since using a voice assistant.

Independence

Another way in which these assistants have made a positive impact is in giving people more independence. People with visual impairment, physical disabilities, or memory loss have benefited by using these devices. In addition, seniors, who may not be tech-savvy and may not even own a computer or smart phone, can still take advantage of services on the Internet they would otherwise be cut off from.

PC Mag outlines a variety of reasons these devices can be a boon for those with visual impairments. As Bill Boules, who has been blind since birth, puts it:

“The Echo is definitely a game changer… You can get the information much faster, at least 10 times faster.” [Boules] often listens to TV programs, but before the Echo, had to rely on family members to navigate the TV guide and locate the program he wanted.

He even suggests that blind people could use the Amazon Look (a version of the Echo that has a camera and helps you decide what to wear) to make sure their outfit goes together.

We don’t always think of these type of use cases when we’re designing. Creators of a home assistant robot were surprised when their first real user, a quadriplegic man, immediately asked the robot to fetch a towel to wipe his mouth. It was certainly not the top capability the creators of the helper robot had designed it for, but sometimes these automated devices give us something we don’t always think enough about: our dignity.

For those with other types of physical disabilities, the Echo can foster independence. A man with cerebral palsy had difficulty regulating his body temperature in the middle of the night. Now, with the Echo, he can adjust the thermostat himself, without having to wake his mom.

I’ve read other accounts in which children with elderly parents use the Echo to help them worry less. One man installed an Echo Dot in his mom’s house, and by looking at the logs, can see if she’s up and interacting for the day by the fact she asked the Echo Dot what time it is.

Many of us think of things like using the Echo to turn on the lights as being “cool” or at least convenient. But as one commenter on the forum Reddit put it:

“I have a degenerative muscle wasting disease and echo is lifesaver… Something as simple as being able to turn on lights without asking someone is wonderful!”

It can provide independence for those with learning disabilities, as well. During trials for people at a “support living” home in Wales, the Echo was found to improve confidence. As one resident, Samantha Snell, put it:

“I used to have staff 24 hours every day and they would remind me if I needed to be anywhere, they would call me in the mornings and help me cook,” [Snell] said. “Echo has given me more independence, I don’t have to rely on staff so much now. It’s really easy to use…It helps me with my moods because I’m a lot happier now.”

Smart speakers are also being used in senior living facilities. An organization called Front Porch installed Amazon Echos in a senior living residence in Carlsbad, California. The majority of the people in the focus group are in their 80s. In addition to listening to audiobooks and music, and playing games, residents can use it to send and receive messages to their friends and family.

In this post, titled “Greetings From the Alexa Club,” one of the residents in the Front Porch focus group describes the pleasure she gets from using the device:

“Most fun of all was setting up Alexa-to-Alexa messaging with two friends who have also started using this magical device. Alexa’s usual bright blue signal ring…shows bright greenish-yellow, and a bell rings…and one of my friends has left me a message. Yes, we could wait ’til we saw each other in the lobby. Yes, we could use the telephone. But there’s something so personal and private AND FUN about using Alexa. I haven’t had this much fun since we were kids and string a wire between two tin cans and played ‘telephone’.”

The comments in the article are also encouraging, such as this one:

“My Dad is in his early eighties and living with Parkinson’s disease, so he spends most of his time shut in alone during the day. Unfortunately, communicating by text or email is impossible due to the disease, poor eyesight, and the usual difficulty older people have with technology.
Within days of getting him an Echo, his mood was vastly improved and he became much more engaged and communicative with the family. He loves feeling in-touch with the world again. He can listen to news, music, and get information without negotiating a keyboard or operating system.”

Companionship

The last potential positive from these voice-enabled speakers I’ll mention is a bit more controversial: companionship. Loneliness impacts many people, and disproportionately seniors. More and more seniors are living on their own, and can become isolated.

Ideally, we’d have friends, family and caregivers make regular in-person visits. Unfortunately, that’s not always feasible. Is it possible that some day, the successors to these smart speakers could help fill the void?

Not everyone is a fan of this idea. After all, where is the meaning — the true companionship — in talking to a “soulless” cylinder that sits passively on your kitchen counter?

It may not matter. Scientific American analyzed conversations to determine which subject people talk about the most. Surprise — it’s ourselves! Their research observed people in an MRI machine, and found that people feel pleasure when talking about themselves — even if no one else is listening.

We can all agree that we have an issue with addiction to devices in today’s world, and many of us wish we spent less time in front of screens. Perhaps these voice assistants are the first step to making us put down our phones. They may even give us back a bit of our humanity.