It’s not so long ago that the idea of a ‘virtual assistant’ organising our lives was the stuff of science fiction. Now, every major tech company offers one. So what effect will voice activation software have on the way we communicate in the future?
If ‘the young’ are anything to go by, the phone call is a thing of the past. The 2017 Ofcom report shows that only 15% of 16 to 24-year-olds consider a phone call the most important method of communication, compared with 36% who prefer instant messaging.
Speak your command, Master
But while the phone call might be in decline, the ‘human voice and technology’ is most definitely on the rise. All four technology giants – Google, Apple, Amazon and Microsoft – offer a voice-activated virtual assistant and millions of us are using them every day. Instead of typing “Where’s the nearest service station?” or “How do I skin a tomato?” into a phone or computer, we can now ask Assistant, Siri, Alexa or Cortana and ‘she’ will speak the answer.
Interestingly, all four have female voices. Cynics might say this is sexist, that we’ve come to expect assistants to be women. But research has shown that both men and women simply prefer female voices, finding them warmer and more understanding.
Much improved voice technology
Voice technology is still relatively new in computing, but it has come a long way from the days when it had as much trouble recognising our voices as we had recognising its. (Check out the hilarious voice recognition in a Scottish elevator sketch on YouTube.)
The last 10 years have seen voice recognition move on from its original industrial and military applications into business and personal communication. And why not?
More convenient than typing
In many situations, the voice is a more convenient and natural way of communicating. Uniquely, it can be used while doing something else – driving, walking and cooking, for example – and it can have major benefits for people with learning and physical difficulties.
One application that has met with a mixed response is in the field of criminal investigation.
Forensic phonetics has long been used in legal proceedings. ‘Ear-witnesses’ are asked to recognise a defendant from a recording or voice ‘line-up’, while voice experts analyse sound and verbal patterns. But now, with electronic devices able to record and store data, the role of the voice in criminal investigations is changing rapidly.
Witness for the prosecution
Voice biometrics helped convict Michael Stone for the murder of Lin and Megan Russell, and, earlier this year, the Amazon electronic listening device Echo became a ‘key witness’ in a US murder trial.
Arkansas resident James Bates was charged with the murder of Victor Collins at Bates’s home in 2015. Police seized the device and prosecutors later demanded that Amazon release the data so they could listen for evidence. The prosecution argued that Echo could have made recordings that would shed some light on what happened that night. Amazon refused but Bates himself later gave permission saying he had nothing to hide. The case is still ongoing, but it will be interesting to see what role, if any, the listening device played in the outcome.
Elocution lessons to sound less posh
It’s not just technology that’s responsible for the current vocal renaissance. According to online business directory Tutor Pages, elocution lessons are on the rise. Only forget the likes of Henry Higgins teaching Eliza Doolittle how to lose her Cockney accent, today’s voice coaches are more likely to be helping those with Received Pronunciation (RP) sound more ‘streetwise’.
Dame Joan Bakewell and the BBC’s Charlotte Green have both recently said that their voice is no longer the required voice of the BBC and voice coach Christine Hubbard says she receives a steady stream of customers who “don’t want to come over as too posh”. Christine said: “Social workers, policemen, lawyers, barristers and even teachers tell me that they’ve had people say they don’t want to deal with them because they sound ‘too snooty’.”
Even our Royal Family is adopting a ‘less posh’ version of the traditional RP with the Duke of Cambridge and Prince Harry now dropping the characteristic elongated vowel sounds. In fact, linguists suggest that Prince William’s accent is now less refined than Kate Middleton’s.
Pigeonholed by accents
However, the increase in elocution lessons isn’t only about people wanting to sound less posh. A growing number of professionals are turning to voice coaches because they dislike being pigeonholed by their accents.
London-based voice coach Matt Pocock says that while many of his clients are non-native English speakers who want to be more easily understood, many others were born in this country and dislike assumptions being made about them based on how they sound. “I don’t like being a band-aid on a class system that isn’t working,” said Matt, “but that’s what I am.”
Felicity Goodman, a Manchester-based voice coach, says that while a desire to phase out a regional accent is what brings people to her, it’s often other aspects of their speaking that really bothers them – aspects such as tension and anxiety before interviews, meetings, presentations and important phone calls.
Glossophobia, the fear of public speaking, is nothing new but with the demise of the business phone call, it’s becoming a particular problem among millennials, people born in the 1980s and 1990s. Julia Gosling, director of public relations consultancy Davies Tanner, recently brought in a public speaking trainer to help her account execs overcome their reluctance to pick up the phone. “While they were happy to email a journalist with an idea for a story,” Julia said, “they wouldn’t talk on the phone in the main office. They’d disappear off to a meeting room so no-one in the office could hear them.”
On the ascent
Whether the growth in voice-activated computers will encourage or discourage us to be more vocal on the phone remains to be seen. But with voice computers now guiding us to our destinations, organising our diaries, verifying our bank details, helping disabled people communicate and perhaps even convicting criminals, one thing is certain: the power of the human voice is on the ascent.