Will our manners go the same way as texting when robotic servants take over?

Katja Forbes

Katja is the founder of syfte, a specialist inr esearch and experience design. She's also an educator in design thinking and interaction design at the University of Sydney and proud to be a co-founding member and local leader in Sydney of the global community organisation, Interaction Design Association. Together with Joe Ortenzi, Katja has built a community of over 1700 designers in Sydney, providing them with learning opportunities via lecture based meetups that draw a crowd of 150 people each time, a mentoring program and workshops. In addition, Katja is passionate about sharing her story and advice to empower other women in business. She has given presentations at Women In Design, Leaders in Heels, Women In Commerce, Code like a Girl (Melbourne Knowledge week) and at multiple organisations including Telstra and Macquarie Bank.

Much of the talk in the industry is focused on the limited amount of time that screens have left in our lives.  

This concept is very difficult to grasp right now, with everyone from all walks of life literally glued to screens including their phone, tablet, laptop and television. However, designers everywhere now are creating for speech and not screens. Generations that follow are going to find our obsession with screens very alien.  

So what does the future look like for business owners? Firstly, customer interactions will need to be speech and not screen focussed. That means websites and social media will need a strong speech component, especially for the main sections visitors need to utilise, and to engage them in the first place.  

A few examples: While customers may press a button for frequently asked questions, the results will be spoken, rather than written. In addition, on the home page, chat bots offering service will do so verbally, and not in writing. And of course, your response would be verbal as well. Instructions for customers will all be vocal.  

So how will it look? Information we need to access, such as movie times and restaurant addresses, will be available to us in dialogue format, rather than text. We will be able to ask our voice assistant to locate it for us as well.      

A number of personal assistants have already been introduced to help us communicate in this manner. Siri from iPhone is basically a personal assistant that can do tasks like scheduling events, identifying music, make calls, setting reminders, and even booking reservations at your favourite restaurants. There are others on the market too – Google Now and Windows 10 Cortana are also some healthy competition in the mix and are meant to do more or less the same thing.   

These robotic personal assistants have unfortunately raised some ethical issues too. Since our business and personal landscape is heading this way it is important that these problems are smoothed out before they clearly become catastrophes.  

The first issue with these assistants is genuine enough and comes in the form of voice recognition problems. Sometimes these personal assistants mis-hear what you are trying to say, suggesting that intonation and perception may not be something computers can decipher.     

Their pre-emptive nature is being worked on too, and if they can master that, then these personal assistants may start to really carve a place for themselves in our lives.  

A more sinister concern for our lives being taken over by voice assistants is also coming to light. All of these personal assistants are all currently defaulted to a female voice because they are largely better-accepted by customers this way. However, this leads us to wonder how will we treat these assistants and will this rub off onto the way we treat other human beings?  

As users direct orders at these personal assistants, they will fail to soften their language with “please” and “thank you” (given these directives are not required when talking to a robot). Does this mean that we eventually start to talk to one another the same way? Will we bark orders at women, because our personal assistant robots are female sounding and that’s how we talk to them? Will this become the new normal?    

In my opinion, the simple phrases ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ empower the other person. They refer to a choice the other person is making, rather than simply being instructed to do something, where their freedom to decline is removed. They also imply appreciation for the other person.   

However, our voice assistants have no choice in whether or not  they act on your command. They are completely subservient. They have no freedom to decline. The problem comes in because they sound human and act like a human.  

Will our behaviour toward these assistants spread to the rest of our everyday life? We’re already seeing this trend in research that correlates children and their interactions with Alexa with increased rudeness to their peers.  

As speech, rather than screens, become more mainstream in our lives, it is more important than ever that children and young people are taught the difference between humans and virtual intelligence. If your life includes a servant that follows your orders, it’s important that this device is thought of exactly as that – an inanimate device.  

Humans are different in that we have emotions and have the freedom to decline. There should be no chance of people confusing these personal assistants with real human beings.  This all comes down to education, and it is going to be a very important area of our educational curriculum in future years.

 

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Tags: customer engagement, voice-activated devices, emergign technology

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