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More Talking Less Typing With Our Devices

7 May 2024

Barbara listened to Tobias Dengel at the Virginia Festival of the Book, read his book, The Sound of the Future, afterwards, and learned that instead of just staring at our screens, we’ll be talking to them more.

Tags: barbara read, barbara watched, vabook

Tobias Dengel, CEO of WillowTree, a global organization with headquarters in Charlottesville, Virginia, was an excellent speaker and presented exciting information about how much easier it is going to be to communicate with our devices. You can watch a recording here.

I’d always wondered what WillowTree does since my friend, Dr. Kelli Palmer, is their Chief Employee Experience Officer. I looked it up and learned they “design and build mobile apps and websites, launch personalized and automated marketing campaigns, and do it all with the latest in Generative AI and machine learning.” However, I didn’t really understand what any of that meant until I read this book.

Dengel wrote, “For all the power of modern digital computers, we’ve been forced to communicate with them using keyboards, mice and touch screens—all more or less awkward, slow, error-prone, decidedly unnatural, and, for some people and purposes practically impossible….We will finally be able to communicate with machines in the same way we communicate with each other—via our voices.”

The automated voices generated by AI (Artificial Intelligence) will be able to understand us more than they do now. Siri and Alexa have been a good start, but ChatGPT is much better and automated voice is improving almost monthly.

When I went to Dengel’s talk on 22 March 2024, I had never heard of ChatGPT. When I started reading his book, I decided to take a look. I was also reading a novel that described an artist’s work as derivative, and I had a hunch what that meant but wasn’t sure. I went to ChatGPT.com and asked—What does it mean to say a work of art is derivative? It typed a fantastic explanation right in front of my eyes. Here’s part of the answer:

“Describing a work of art as "derivative" typically means that it lacks originality or creativity, and instead heavily borrows ideas, themes, styles, or techniques from other existing works. It's like saying the artist hasn't really brought anything new to the table; they're just replicating or imitating what's already been done by others.”

Part of my career was as a high school and college English teacher. When I read ChatGPT’s answer, I thought OMG—no student’s ever going to write another paragraph by themselves. But then I tried to calm myself by saying—maybe they will learn how to write clear paragraphs by reading so many of them. I was really impressed, but then on page 201 of The Sound of the Future, I learned that ChatGPT can eloquently give you a wrong answer, so it might be a good place to start but it’s important to check other sources.

At the book festival Dengel said he asked his son if he had ever used ChatGPT to write a paper. He said, “Yes, but I had to learn to tell it to write it like an 11-year-old would.”

I thought about some of my experiences with automated voices so far that irritate me and that please me. When I want to talk to my main pharmacist, the voice keeps saying to me—tell me a little more about what you need? After the first, second, and third try, I start yelling “pharmacist, pharmacist, pharmacist, pharmacist” and finally get transferred. Another new pharmacy I tried recently put me through to a live person the first time I said, “Pharmacist.” Each time I finish my screaming fit, I consider changing pharmacies for all my prescriptions, but the aggravating one has a fabulous drive through window which is wonderfully convenient, so I’m torn. Dengel said businesses that provide good voice experiences are going to have a competitive advantage.

One of the stories in Dengel’s book that I love is about his wife who is a surgeon. During an operation, sometimes she needs information from a touch screen. There is a circulating nurse that does that for her, but sometimes the nurse is occupied with something else. She can’t break her sterile field, so she takes her foot out of her clog and touches the screen with her big toe. She said to her husband, “I can’t help thinking that a voice control option could really be helpful at times like this.”

Another emergency service has begun to use automated voice. A fire department in a suburb of Cincinnati has changed how they handle alarms. Instead of a bell clanging an emergency call, an automated voice wakes the firefighters up and calmly gives clear instructions about what is happening and where they should go. The dispatcher who takes the 911 call can keep typing updated instructions that the voice speaks to the firefighters rather than having to switch back and forth between talking to the caller and talking to the firefighters. The new process is minutes faster, saves lives and property, and is much less jarring and adrenaline-producing than a clanging bell.

Both Dengel’s talk and his book were exciting as he explained how automated voice is going to improve and interact with our other devices in increasingly satisfying ways. We can speak faster and more accurately than we can type, but we don’t want to listen to a long answer with lots of choices. “While it is quick and easy to tell Alexa to order us a pizza, it’s awkward, slow, and frustrating to have to listen to Alexa respond with all the confirmation details regarding our choice of toppings, size, crust and so on. It’s much more efficient to see the order we just placed summarized on a screen, and then confirm it with a simple Yes.”

The downside of this new technology is that the automated voice can listen to my voice and with little effort use my words to send a message that I didn’t compose but that sounds just like me. It could call my daughter and say I was in distress and needed money. She would be savvy enough not respond, but if my granddaughter called me with the same request, I’d have to work hard to keep my head clear and call her back to confirm.

I dream of one day saying to one of my streaming movie sites, “I want to watch a love story with not too much violence” and get an answer of two or three choices on my phone or computer. Dengel says we’re going to be able to do such a thing faster than we think. Voice…”will redefine how users interact with technology, much like the personal computer in the ‘80s, the internet in the ‘90s, and the smartphone in the 2000s.”

What dream would you have for Automated Voice?


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