Skip to main content

Alexa, is the future here yet? Voice assistance, your privacy, and accessibility

Jun 06 '18

I am a fan of the show The Expanse. The show represents plausibly realistic 24th-century technology, including smartphones that do everything, gesture-based holographic displays, and voice commands. But the presentation of that last one gave me reason to stop and think.

Detective Miller is explaining his discoveries to his colleague with his phone in front of him on the table. Mid-sentence, he says "go 3D". His phone intuitively recognizes this phrase as a voice command and projects a hologram of the solar system into the room.

The Expanse: Detective Miller says "Go 3D"

Our fascination with making science-fiction technology a reality is in full swing. iPads, touch screens, and gesture controls are old news. Currently in development are transparent phones, virtual reality, augmented reality, and even devices that can literally read your thoughts. How much longer until we achieve hugely ambitious big ideas like downloading a copy of your brain?

But as we're working on this tech, the real-world limitations and serious ethical and privacy concerns are becoming all too apparent. But there's a silver lining...

Alexa and Google Home

Lets go back to voice assistance technology. Google Home and Amazon Alexa were hugely popular consumer products last year. But they're still working out the bugs in the implementation of that seamless experience Detective Miller had in The Expanse.

You might have remembered some unsettling headlines:

How it works - these devices actually are constantly listening, recording and then deleting little snippets of audio. It analyzes the audio for the activation phrase, "Ok, Google..." or "Alexa? ..." and that triggers the recording of the next sentence.

That sentence (an audio file) gets sent to the cloud servers, run through voice recognition services, and a response is sent back to the device. Yes, those are files sitting on a server. How much of that audio data is retained is not clearly understood by the public.

That's a lot less sexy than telling your personal AI assistant "Ok Google, make me coffee." But that's how it works on the lowest level. You should read Google Home's data security and privacy and Amazon Alexa terms of use. You should know what they're doing with your data, and how to delete it.

The fact that so many people were eager to adopt this voice-recognition hardware and install it in every room in the house illustrates how enamored we are with sci-fi technology. They've got their best people on it. As they work out the bugs, this technology will get better. There will be growing pains.

But it's not all doom and gloom. There's a huge upside to this: Accessibility.

Voice recognition for your website

For companies with limited resources, accessibility was often viewed as an afterthought or a nuisance. But now that voice recognition is the hot ticket item, suddenly making your website or web application fully navigable by voice commands makes business sense. And that will hopefully make the Web more accessible overall for the people who truly need it.

The Web Speech API is a proposed standard that is in the experimental phase. Firefox and Chrome both have an implementation. It could become a W3C standard and be implemented by all modern browsers. There's already some libraries that make integrating it in your website a cinch:

I'm looking forward to experimenting with this new API.

Alexa, are we there yet?

As we march towards a futuristic society, with more and more of the tech that inspires us becoming real, let's make sure that we take those rose-tinted glasses off and take a good, hard look at the real world implications of this technology. If we can keep corporations honest and protect ourselves, we will reap the benefits that the future tech of science fiction can give us.