Weird Voice Control

Posted on March 15, 2018

I know- the third blog post in a row about Amazon, but Alexa has made the news again, and this time she has done it with a cackle.

Laughter is a particularly human thing to do. Studies have even shown that humans can easily distinguish between someone fake laughing and real laughing, so when the sound of laughter comes from something non-human, could it truly be anything BUT creepy? Alexa made headlines last week as many users reported Alexa randomly laughing. One twitter user claims he was “lying in bed about to fall asleep when Alexa on [his] Amazon Echo Dot [let] out a very loud and creepy laugh”. Amazon claims Alexa thought she heard the prompt “Alexa, laugh”, so she did. Amazon has subsequently changed that command to “Alexa, can you laugh” in an effort to prevent further fits of unintended laughter.

We’ve reached a weird point in voice control where we are giving this technology more control and allowing it decision making power, but the fear is it responding in the negative, and believing via algorithm that the decision a user is making is wrong. Some technology has already progressed to this point, with some smart thermostats waiting for ten minutes to adjust the temperature after a manual change is made in an effort to prevent the rogue teenager from coming home and cranking the AC down. Moving down this path does seem inevitable, but we should be wary about how we trigger our devices, as this could impact overall user experience.

Amazon’s Echo devices are triggered by the user saying “Alexa”, “Echo”, or “Computer”, but cannot be customized beyond those choices. The market is split when it comes to naming virtual assistants, with Amazon providing the above choices, Google’s trigger being “Okay, Google” or “Hey, Google”, Apple’s trigger being “Hey, Siri”, and of course, the built-in Windows assistant, activated by the trigger “Cortana”. When these devices think they hear their trigger word, they respond and try to complete the interpreted action, as designed. Last year Apple took the first step toward solving this problem with a patent for technology that will allow Siri to learn a user’s voice. This could solve a large majority of accidental triggers, but Amazon and Google will also need to make progress, as they currently hold the market share of voice control units.

Without voice recognition and precise command understanding functionality, our voice activated home assistants will be flawed, and we will sometimes get weird results. Mass adoption of this technology should continue to spur growth and allow companies like Amazon, Google, and Apple to develop the voice recognition and higher level understanding our home assistants need. A hopeful future includes one without Alexa waking users in the middle of the night, laughing.

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