How Siri Might Indicate the Future of Voice Interaction

Voice assistants are changing with society

Key Takeaways

  • Siri adds two new US-English voices.
  • The iPhone will no longer default to a female Siri voice.
  • Voice interaction may never be as good as it is in the movies.
An iPhone with Siri active on the screen.

Omid Armin / Unsplash

Siri just added two new voices in the US and will no longer default to a female servant, but are voice assistants really the future?

In science fiction, humans have always spoken to robots and computers. Part of that is surely down to film and TV’s dramatic requirements: speaking is always more interesting than typing.

As voice assistants get more competent, it’s easy to believe that the future of computing is all voice. But is that possible? And is it even desirable?

"Right now, voice assistants are incredibly popular," Stefan Chekanov, CEO of remote work company Brosix, told Lifewire via email. "However, all commands that go to the assistant are fairly simple and straightforward."

"When it comes to more subtle inputs, voice technology will be much more likely to make mistakes which is why I don’t believe it will become dominant. For actions that require a lot of precision, such as coding or designing, this type of interaction doesn’t help a lot."

Too Human

In the movies, computers are as smart as people. C3PO is as intelligent—and as neurotic—as any human. Iron Man’s J.A.R.V.I.S is more like a regular voice assistant, in that it lives in a cloud, not a robot body, but it too can interpret all of Tony Stark’s instructions without a mistake.

Compare that to Siri, which has trouble with even the most basic tasks. It’s easy to blame the assistant itself, but one of the biggest problems is our expectations.

Between the history of movie computers, and the promises of Apple, Google, Amazon, and other virtual assistant vendors, we expect too much. If a computer sounds like a human, we expect it to behave like one.

A child holding a robot's hand in a busy market.

Andy Kelly / Unsplash

This is where our gender biases come in. In the US, Siri defaults to a female-typical voice, although that’s not the case everywhere. If we have expectations of a computer because it sounds human, then it follows that those expectations will mimic our existing societal biases.

"Because of deeply ingrained stereotypes about women, the majority of voice assistants are female," online divorce specialist Andriy Bogdanov told Lifewire via email.

"Female voices are used to give the user the impression that the robot is helpful, kind, and trustworthy, all of which are attributes commonly associated with women."

Q is a genderless computer voice designed to be used in virtual assistants. It is generated from recordings of humans who do not identify as male or female and then processed further to bring it into a pitch range that is neither deep nor high.

In iOS 14.5, new users will have to pick a voice for Siri. In the current beta, those voices are labeled with numbers instead of being identified as male or female. This is commendable in a way, but also annoying.

"When it comes to more subtle inputs, voice technology will be much more likely to make mistakes which is why I don’t believe it will become dominant."

Numbering the options won’t make you change your attitudes or preferences, but it will make it harder to pick the voice you want. It’s like forcing people to choose a search engine. Most of us will just go with the most familiar—Google.

Better, perhaps, to default the voice to a non-binary option and force people to dig into the settings to change it.

Complex and Simple Tasks

Voice-controlled computers need to get a lot better before they can be used for everything. Setting a timer, adding a calendar event, and even replying to incoming text messages are all pretty seamless with current assistants.

Still, for anything more complex, you might want to switch to another input method.

"While Siri or Google Assistant have no trouble switching finding a Netflix Comedy special, far more complex inputs might inconvenience the user more than make it easier on them," computer security analyst Eric Florence told Lifewire via email.

"As someone who has worked with thousands of lines of code before, you can only get so specific before certain commands begin to compete or override other commands, leading to jams in the system which might only frustrate the user."

Someone holding an iPhone with Siri activated.

Roberto Nickson / Unsplash

"There is a zero percent chance that human/computer interaction will become primarily a voice interface," Naomi Assaraf, founder and CMO of CloudHQ, told Lifewire via email.

"The reason is that we use our computers, phones, and other devices in a wide variety of places where it's not practical to speak back and forth with computers."

When driving, washing dishes, or working in the shop, voice control is convenient. But sci-fi has something to teach us about this, too: "Even the people at their stations on Star Trek had touch interfaces, in addition to the famous 'Computer'" says Assaraf.

Voice assistants will continue to improve, and maybe one day they really will be as good as their on-screen counterparts. But our relationships with these devices need to change, too. Siri itself might not care if you insult it with gendered slurs, but it says a lot about the person doing the insulting.

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