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Digital equality for all: Accents and second class citizenship in the 'voice first’ world

Digital equality for all: Accents and second class citizenship in the 'voice first’ world

We appear to be on the verge of segregating society into haves and have nots again, and arguably - on the basis of people’s accents. Just ask Alexa, posits Vaughan Robertson.

2017 will be the year of the 'voice UI' but maybe not in New Zealand, Australia and other English speaking constituencies

Vaughan Robertson

When Eliza Doolittle demonstrated her cockney accent in the famous play Pygmalion, and its more famous musical version My Fair Lady, she shocked the surrounding patrons with the realisation that she was actually a “working class” girl.

For generations and across the world, stereotypes and prejudices have been supported and promulgated by the accents of individuals. How you say it has always determined “what you are”.

Why would this be relevant to an article in an ICT blog?

In 2017, we appear to be on the verge of segregating society into haves and have nots again, and arguably - on the basis of people’s accents.

It has been acknowledged at industry events such as CES in January that 2017 will be the year of the “voice UI”.

Siri, Google Now, Cortana, Viv and now Bixby have become ubiquitous on end user devices, and are trending toward mainstream use, certainly by digital natives.

High-end user interfaces like IBM’s Watson will happily accept voice input, and the chatbot trend is being driven by the expectation of voice interaction.

My favourite new futurist term is “cognitive augmentation”, which eloquently covers the range of technologies that are available to each of us to use our personal devices to make the endless search for an easier lifestyle … well …. easier!

Our phones can tell us that we need to eat our toast faster; our PCs can remind us that it will take 45 minutes to get to our next appointment, and our Alexa can remind us that we have a dentist appointment….

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Alexa, Google Home and all the less well-known voice activated home hub devices, are apparently still not available in our locale for the foreseeable future.

Wait – that last one?

Oh – of course… NOT in NEW ZEALAND! (Actually, nor in Australia, or many other “English” speaking constituencies …)

Alexa, Google Home and all the less well-known “voice activated home hub” devices, are apparently still not available in our locale for the foreseeable future.

Now – we may assume that this is not about voice recognition but rather distance from the UI translation server or some such supply side issue… but that would be an untenable admission from our providers, who are happy to assert that distance from the server is certainly not a stopper to these types of services.

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In Auckland, in September 2015, there was a superb keynote presentation by Microsoft’s Jeff Belfiore to some thousands of IT industry players, where Jeff passionately demonstrated the fantastic features of the UI entitled “Microsoft Cortana”.

While the failure of his voice-activated demo was unfortunate at the time, Jeff’s unbelievable concluding assertion was that:

  • Cortana was not available in New Zealand, and
  • That he couldn’t announce when it would!

Awesome presentation! Obviously going for maximum client buy-in! And in April 2017, I can confidently assert that they still haven’t announced a date!

Two…. years…. later……!

The “home automation hub” is right now the “got-to-have” device for the technologically literate consumer, and smart home application vendors are falling over themselves to develop interfaces for Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Google Home Hubs.

But it appears that scant attention is being paid to the need for these interfaces to be internationally ubiquitous.

Recently I spoke to a representative from Amazon in New Zealand, who gave me some great tips on how to hack the Amazon Echo to work in the NZ environment. Some domain-related download issues notwithstanding, it looks like a winner, and I’m gagging to try it.

But it’s still a hack.

The need to legitimise the Voice Activated UI across geographies is urgent, overdue, and most importantly – a demonstration of commitment to digital equality for all.

Hey Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Facebook – how about it?

Vaughan Robertson (vaughan.robertson@beca.com ) is a futurist, technology advocate and change junkie.

Send news tips and comments to divina_paredes@idg.co.nz

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