One of the most exciting applications for eContext’s technology is in the virtual assistant space; we help VA developers find new ways to synthesize the complexities of human language into something that computer programs can work with. As such, we’re avid followers of connected-home products such as Amazon Echo and Google Home. Whether looking at these products’ strengths or current limitations, it’s all part of a larger conversation that’s getting broader and more sophisticated all the time.
Chatter about VAs
Two recent articles add to that larger conversation. The first is more of a primer: TechRepublic is building what its author calls a “living guide” to Echo and its competitors. This guide, updated as new information becomes available, offers a ton of helpful, consumer-oriented details, like pricing, specs, and helpful examples of functionality. Even more valuable, in my opinion, is their curated list of other VA-related stories. These links include reviews, industry news, and quite a few thought pieces that tackle the subject in unexpected ways.
Speaking of the unexpected, check out this Washington Post article on children who are growing up with virtual assistants. The piece considers the intimate role these VAs can have in family homes, almost like a combination of a butler and a pet. The author also questions the influence of VAs on their child operators. Do smart speakers encourage or discourage polite interactions? Are kids learning to think of technology as “alive”, and what would be the effects of that transition?
Who is programming who?
One of the most interesting concerns raised by the article is how VAs force users to speak in simple, easy-to-understand sentences. It’s true: the less sophisticated a VA’s language processing is, the more a user has to tailor his or her speech. Over time, those micro-level shifts can influence larger patterns of communication, which is especially important to consider when the users happen to be children.
When I read this article, I am reminded how important it is to get better and better at classifying language, to improve on the ways that computers understand human communication. It’s not just an issue of convenience or user design principles, it’s about acknowledging the ways that technology impacts our culture. It’s about giving users as much control as possible over the products and services we’ve come to rely on so heavily.wq