Five Years Forward: Voice Interfaces Will Work as Your “Other Brain”
About a decade ago I was invited to keynote The Future of Digital Marketing conference in London. The organizers warned that my talk on how the era of mobile would drive change might get a skeptical reception. And that prediction didn’t fail: a few attendees described seeing smartphones as nothing more than toys that would never come anywhere near the computing power of desktops. My best retort was: “One device is mobile, can photograph, play music and knows its location…and you think the future is immobile, blind and unaware? You’d bet on immobility as the ideal?” We all laughed.
Today, we just call them phones, and they define the modern experience. Try going without your phone for a day, and it’s like stepping back in time: no maps to guide you, no way to text, delays on email responses, and forgotten phone numbers. In terms of necessity, losing one’s phone is in many ways a loss of identity, of our other brain.
As we approach the next decade, voice interfaces represent new ways we will interact with ambient computing. Due to our reliance on old-fashioned QWERTY keyboards, which were organized to slow typing down, we can talk four times faster than we type. That means voice search strings are longer and better able to trigger relevant results.
When our team visited with digital leaders at a conference this past fall, we focused in part on helping people to see Alexa and Siri as voice interfaces rather than toys. As Facebook’s Krishna Golden has said, “sometimes the best interface is none at all.” That’s where voice combined with the Internet of Things is taking us.
Next decade predictions
In 2019, there are about a billion and a half devices that serve as voice assistants, with as much of 65% of consumers ages 25-49 speaking to them daily. We’ve reached the tipping point. Some estimates have the use of voice assistants doubling every year for the next four years.
Just like how we would never go back to using flip phones, once there’s widespread adoption of voice interfaces, the idea of returning to tapping on minuscule screens will seem absurd. What’s wonderful about voice and voice assistants is that they don’t have screens. In many cases in life, having no interface at all is the ideal interface.
On the cusp of voice’s acceleration to dominance, I’ve put together five predictions for where voice will take us in the coming years.
Healthcare will lead in voice.
Healthcare providers are uniquely positioned to see early returns on voice. Innovators at the forefront of this technology are already improving patient outcomes. Libertana Healthcare Association, for example, used to have a red button in the room of every senior at their care centers. In the event one of their patients fell or needed assistance, the individual would have to push the red button to alert staff that something was wrong. Now, when a patient needs help, they call out to Alexa and explain their condition. The responding staff arrives prepared to deal with the situation. Nobody at Libertana would ever go back to living with a red button.
Voice will unlock access.
Airline pilots sit in cockpits surrounded by computers, and yet switches and dials are still manually manipulated. It’s only a matter of time before pilots begin to talk to their increasingly autonomous planes. This presents a challenge, in that access will have to be based on the pilot’s unique voice. As the human-machine-interface expands, the need for voice authorization technology becomes ever more pressing. From airplane cockpits to mobile banking, using one’s voice to gain access to secure data and devices will soon replace alphanumeric passwords.
Voice will give us back time.
In conjunction with the rise of IoT, voice will change not only how we work, but also how we live at home. An inordinate amount of time at home is eaten up by an array of activities that could easily be accomplished with voice: locking the front door, setting the oven, adjusting the thermostat, looking for the television remote, vacuuming, lowering the blinds, running a bath. The list goes on and on. If each of those activities could be accomplished in a few seconds using a verbal command, when added up, you’d get back days each year.
Human memory will expand with voice.
Imagine that everything you’d ever spoken was diligently recorded by the various listening devices around us. While frightening for some, note how casually we’ve become accustomed to our written correspondences (such as email) being cataloged and saved. As voice becomes another data point in our lives, we’ll be able to have total recall of every conversation and verbal command, and that information can be used for not only settling arguments about who said what but also optimizing and personalizing our experiences.
Voice interfaces will accelerate ambient computing.
When you sit down to use your computer or your phone, your attention is diverted from the present moment to a physical screen. This is why we’re no longer allowed to text and drive. Voice, on the other hand, demands little more than soundwaves and takes up zero space. With voice interfaces, what technology devices look like will soon take different shapes. Much of the computing power of your phone could be consolidated in an earbud, for example, or the rooms we occupy could become computers themselves. Ambient computing, or omnipresent computers, means you will never be able to forget your phone and its “other brain” capabilities.
Hey Alexa, what’s next?
When Ray Kurzweil predicted that by 2009 most text would be created using voice recognition, he wasn’t wrong, he was just off by a couple of decades. The 2020s are poised to do for voice what this past decade has for smartphones. It will become the predominant form of technology in our lives.
200 million smart speakers will have been sold globally by the end of this year. It’s an astounding number considering the first Amazon Echo only came out five years ago. This doesn’t even account for the hundreds of other smart devices already on the market, from phones to televisions. We are living in a voice-controlled world right now; we just haven’t made the most of it yet.