January-February 2016

Written by Mark Evilsizor
From his column Church Tech

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Star Trek got it right way back in 1966 regarding the most intuitive and efficient way to interact with a computer. I am not talking about that little wheel Spock used on the side of his scope, nor the yellow memory chips (which looked remarkably like the food they ate). I’m referring to the ability to use your voice to control things around you. Twenty years later in the fourth Star Trek movie, they acknowledge this with a wink when Scotty and pals visit 1986. There he picks up a mouse and tries to guide the computer by talking to it. Alas, we had not yet caught up to Gene Roddenberry’s 1966 vision of the future, but today we are getting close.

Technology is finally making voice a reliable method of getting a computer to do our bidding. Amazon Echo surprised us when it became broadly available last summer. The Echo is a small cylinder which is like a genie in a bottle, always listening for our wishes. It can provide general information, such as weather forecasts and sports scores, set cooking timers, and play music or news. The Echo will even let you control some home appliances and lights and alert you to upcoming appointments and traffic conditions.

Phones have employed voice activated systems for a couple of years, but in 2015 they kicked it up a notch. Bringing to mind the ever present Enterprise assistant, Apple introduced a special chip in its iPhone. It allows their voice system, Siri, to be always listening and activated when called, even if the phone is across the room or on a dashboard. It, too, is being integrated with home appliances so you can walk into a room and call for lights, music, and a relaxing cup of tea to begin on cue. Google also has built an assistant into their phones which, if you allow it, can better understand you and your preferences through email, calendars, and contacts.

This type of ever present, ever listening gadget does raise privacy concerns. These devices typically capture your voice and send it back to the manufacturer’s mother ship for interpretation. What the companies themselves do to use your information is often buried in lengthy user agreements which we usually click through when setting up new equipment. When a few televisions were found to do this unexpectedly there was a bit of backlash. Most often convenience and price trump privacy among consumers, and we willingly give up our data in exchange for everything from a discount on groceries to free email service. If you are concerned about this, some online research will often tell you what you are getting into with specific products. Companies vary in their business models and using information about you for advertising may be one way in which they make revenue. However, there are significant differences in privacy policies between products even from the same company.

While these tools are more accurate than in the past at understanding our wishes, they still make mistakes. My son and I were playing a phone-based online game with distant friends in which the future of our tribe was dependent upon the next few moves. My wife walked in the room and I greeted her with, “Hey, Sherry.” To the dismay of my son and I, we watched as our civilization was wiped out as the face of Siri appeared on our screens thinking we had called her.

These machines are also starting to gain a little personality. You can tell an iPhone your name, and she will address you as such. My wife was surprised to find that, due to our son’s instruction, Siri greeted her as Mrs. Picklebreath. We were both surprised when we asked Siri if she was serious. She chided us, saying she does not have time to be frivolous.

What’s next? Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft have recently released enhanced TV programming boxes which use voice as a way to search for content. The Roku 3 streaming device can do the same thing. I can’t wait to try one of these. If there is any corner of the house with far too many remotes, controllers, and buttons it is the TV/Cable Box/Video Game/DVD player setup. If there is a future in which I can say “Computer, turn on the Chiefs game,” and it appears on the screen, then I am all for it! It may not be as significant as transparent aluminum, but it sure will be convenient.

Mark Evilsizor has worked in Information Technology for more than 20 years. He currently serves as head of IT for the Linda Hall Library in Kansas City, Mo. Views and opinions expressed are strictly his own.

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