Meta and Google Are Betting on AI Voice Assistants. Will They Take Off?

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The Rise of the Talking Computer: Voice Assistants Are Back (But Will We Ever Talk to Them in Public?)

The dream of a world where we can simply speak to our devices to accomplish any task has been around for decades. While the early days of voice assistants like Siri and Alexa were met with limited success and a touch of social awkwardness, a new wave of AI-powered technology is breathing new life into the concept, with companies hoping to finally make talking to computers the norm.

Key Takeaways:

  • Generative AI revolutionizes voice assistants: New technology enables voice assistants to understand context and engage in conversations, making them much more helpful and user-friendly.
  • The awkwardness factor remains: Despite advancements in AI, talking to computers in public still carries a stigma. While we’ve embraced talking on phones, adapting to the social implications of talking to AI in public might take time.
  • Practicality and limitations: While talking to computers offers convenience in certain situations, such as while driving or walking, it’s not always the best choice when privacy or social considerations are important.
  • The future is a blend: While voice assistants are becoming smarter and more conversational, it’s unlikely that they will completely replace traditional computer interactions. Instead, we’re likely to see a blend of voice and keyboard-based interfaces, with each best suited for different scenarios.

A New Era of Voice Assistants

For years, voice assistants like Siri and Alexa struggled to gain widespread acceptance. Users were frustrated with their limited ability to understand complex requests and the seemingly awkward act of "talking" to a computer in public. However, the rise of generative AI is changing the game. These AI models, like ChatGPT and Google’s Gemini, are trained on vast amounts of data and can understand context and nuance in conversation, allowing for more natural interactions.

Dimitra Vergyri, director of speech technology at SRI, a research lab behind the initial version of Siri, believes that generative AI addresses many of the challenges faced by earlier voice assistants. "It makes voice assistants capable of understanding spontaneous speech and responding with helpful answers," she says.

John Burkey, a former Apple engineer who worked on Siri, also sees the potential of generative AI. "Siri was limited in size – it knew only so many words," he says. "You’ve got better tools now."

But Will We Ever Talk to Computers in Public?

While the technology is advancing, the social implications of talking to AI in public still pose a hurdle. Even with generative AI improving the capabilities of voice assistants, there are still real challenges to overcome:

  • The awkwardness factor: Talking to a computer in front of others still carries a degree of social stigma.
  • Privacy concerns: Dictating personal information or confidential emails in public could raise concerns about privacy.
  • Contextual appropriateness: Using a voice assistant in some public settings, such as bars or museums, may be seen as inconsiderate or disruptive to others.

A Balance in Communication

Experts agree that voice assistants are here to stay, but they are not likely to completely replace traditional computer interactions. Instead, the future of communication will likely involve a balance between voice and keyboard-based interfaces.

"Technology solves a problem," says Ted Selker, a product design veteran at IBM and Xerox PARC. "When are we solving problems, and when are we creating problems?"

While there are social and contextual limitations, voice assistants offer numerous practical benefits:

  • Seamless Integration: Talking to a voice assistant can be especially useful when our hands are occupied, such as while driving or walking.
  • Context-Specific Information: Voice assistants can provide real-time information about our surroundings, making it easier to navigate unfamiliar places or find information quickly.
  • Multi-Tasking: Voice assistants can be used to manage tasks and appointments hands-free, allowing us to multi-task more efficiently.

A Glimpse into the Future

The use of voice assistants in public may currently be awkward, but a future where we occasionally talk to computers while out and about is certainly on the horizon. As the technology continues to improve and people become more accustomed to using voice assistants, the social barriers will gradually fade.

Chris Schmandt, a longtime MIT Media Lab researcher working on speech interfaces, believes that we’re on the cusp of a new era where voice assistants will become more integrated into our lives.

"While you’re walking around – that’s the sweet spot," Schmandt says. "When I became an early adopter of one of the first mobile phones about 35 years ago, people stared at me as I wandered around the campus talking on the phone. Now this is normal."

The future of voice assistants is brimming with potential, bringing convenience and efficiency into our everyday lives. While the path to acceptance may be slow, it seems clear that the days of speaking to our devices are here to stay.

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Rachel Scott
Rachel Scott
Rachel Scott is a personal tech expert and writer. She provides practical advice and reviews on personal tech gadgets and software, helping readers navigate the ever-evolving landscape of personal technology. Rachel's hands-on approach and clear explanations are appreciated by her audience.