Speech is the most basic and natural way of communication. If we want to explain something really complicated to somebody, we call them rather write them a message. This is because we can use our voice to express what we want in the best and often fastest way. However, we still communicate relatively little using our voice with computers, technology and the outside world in general, at least here in the Czech Republic. But that is changing now and the coronavirus pandemic is having an impact on this gradual transformation. We have started to put much more emphasis on contactlessness and one of the solutions to the problem is to switch to controlling devices around us using gestures or our voice. Let's imagine what the role of voice technologies can be in a post-covid world.
Elevator buttons. The ATM keypad. The touchscreen. The doorhandle. Pedestrian call buttons at traffic lights. The pandemic has made us think about the many surfaces we touch every day. All these places collect hundreds of fingerprints, as well as millions of viruses and bacteria. Although it's hard to imagine using your voice to enter the PIN number of your card on a busy street when withdrawing from an ATM, voice control can be very useful for calling the elevator, opening doors or turning on lights. Now the shift to voice control will not only be a question of innovation, but also of safety. The development of the Internet of things and the voice technology itself is helping us to achieve this, because we have come a long way since the early voice recognition devices such as IBM’s Shoebox in the 1960s. Thanks to artificial intelligence, we can now not only discern message content and emotions from speech, but also identify people using voice biometrics.
Getting through to a helpline that provides information or assistance can require a great deal of patience in times of crisis. Anyone who tried to call a public health office in the first weeks of the pandemic can probably attest to that. People needed information about the new situation and there were few operators available on the helplines. But voice technology is finding its place here too. If a large number of people call the helpline with a similar question (we call these ‘routine questions’), it is possible for a voicebot, an AI-powered voice robot, to answer it instead of a human operator. Thanks to artificial intelligence, it understands what kind of request the person is calling with, can answer it immediately and, in the case of a more complex request, transfer it to a human operator. Another advantage is that it can handle hundreds of callers at once and is available on the line at any time of the day or night. If it is not a routine question and the line is just busy and overloaded, the robot can find out the reason for the call from callers waiting on the line and pass the information to a human operator who will then call them back.
In the midst of a pandemic, thousands of older people have found themselves isolated, fearing for their safety. And they were often left alone in their homes. Social isolation is associated with depression, as well as being linked to poorer emotional and physical health at any age, and the risk is even higher for the elderly. But according to a recent study by British researchers at the University of Reading, digital assistants could help lonely older people. Although talking to a digital assistant is not the same as talking to a real person, it can reduce the effects of loneliness and help to improve care for this high-risk group.
In the coming months and years, we are likely to see a significant increase in the use of voice technology in all areas of our lives – including the office, our cars and smart homes. According to Juniper Research, there will be 275 million voice assistants in peoples’ homes around the world by 2023, led by Alexa. That is a 1,000% increase from the estimated 25 million in 2018. And we'll also see more human-like communication. Voice assistants will not only understand us better, they will also communicate more naturally, just like humans.