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How I learned to stop worrying and love the voice assistant

Although public use of Siri and Google Assistant is yet to reach social acceptance (possibly the same ilk as bluetooth earpiece wearers of the 00s), Google’s recently released search statistics show that 20% of mobile Google searches are instigated by voice.

When it comes to using a voice assistant in the home, the figures are high and climbing.

Amazon Echo, a voice assistant device which uses the cloud-based AI Alexa to answer queries, play games with users and control smart devices in the home, reached a total of 3 million units sold this year – and that’s just in the USA. Gone are the days of simply setting an egg timer via voice command. You can now call on Uber or order groceries as you tidy your kitchen cupboards.

So have we changed, or has technology? Well, both really.

When Google hit the not-so-wide web of 1998, users had to learn how to search like a robot. To find out where to find the best cupcake store in Sydney, we had to truncate our request down to ‘Cupcakes Sydney Top’. This search shorthand was trained into a large percentage of those that made it through the early days of the web. Most still search in this shorthand today.

This was great news when Siri entered the scene in 2011. Though a leap forward for consumers at the time, Siri wasn’t too bright. Our robot commands combined with the forced radio presenter voices we resorted to for clearer recognition were a recipe for a complete head-turner in a public space.

Fast forward to 2016, and we’ve come a long way. Search assistant services understand us clearly, and encourage a far more human approach. The problem we have now is user expectation.

Many users still talk to their services in the same tone and style they used in 2011. However, those who have taken advantage of the contextual strengths of these services are now reaping the benefits of incredibly intuitive and intelligently natural voice assistants that have the ability to be used in public without sounding out of place.

Below is a fantastic video by tech journalist Marques Brownlee showing just how far Siri and Google Assistant have come.

As you can see, the biggest strength is context. Both services are feeding the brain in the sky with patterns and habits of their users to ensure they not only understand what you said, but more importantly, what you meant. But with this growing understanding and convenience, some fear it comes at the price of personal data security.

Below is an excerpt from The Parallax, a fantastic resource for digital security news:

‘Besides your voice, virtual assistants can capture data related to your contacts, calendar, browsing histories, location, music library, purchases, and other personal preferences. They can use it to initiate phone calls, schedule appointments, pull up traffic or weather reports en route to your destination, or suggest nearby restaurants.

Amazon, Google, and Microsoft associate this data with your username, encrypt it, then store it indefinitely in the cloud. Apple associates voice recordings with a randomly generated identification number, stores them securely for six months, then assigns a new identifier so the recordings are no longer connected to your account.’ – Dan Tynan

As we invite this level of convenience into our devices, homes and lives, we must accept complete ownership of our loyal new companion. We feed it daily with delicious personal information. We train it to perform specific tricks, and we get it to play fetch with our data.

If we ever want our dreams of the USS Enterprise computer to come true, we have to gamble our personal information on this little puppy of AI.

Personally, I’m finding the benefits too strong to resist. “Hey Siri, remind me to buy more tin foil.”