While ICT4D innovates from the ground up, most tech we use comes from the top. Yes, it takes a little time for the prices of commercial services in Silicon Valley to drop sufficiently, and the tech to diffuse to the audiences we work with, but the internet and mobile have made that wait short indeed.
Next Big Wave After the Keyboard and Touch: Voice
One such innovation is natural language processing, which draws on AI and machine learning to attempt to understand human language communication and to react and respond appropriately.
While this is not a new field, the quality of understanding and speaking has improved dramatically in recent years. The Economist predicts that voice computing, which enables hands-off communication with machines, is the next and fundamental wave of human-machine interaction, after the keyboard and then touch.
The prediction is driven by tech advances as well as increasing uptake in the consumer market (note: in developed markets): last year Apple’s Siri was handling over 2bn commands a week, and 20% of Google searches on Android-powered handsets in America were input by voice.
Alexa is Amazon’s voice assistant that lives in Amazon devices like Echo and Dot. Well, actually, Alexa lives in the cloud and provides speech recognition and machine learning services to all Alexa-enabled devices.
Unlike Google and Apple, Amazon is wanting to open up Alexa and have it (her?) embedded into any products, not just those from Amazon. If you’re into manufacturer, you can now buy one of a range of Alexa Development Kits for a few hundred dollars to construct your own voice-controlled products.
Skills Skills Skills
While Amazon works hard to get Alexa into every home, car and device, you can in the meantime start creating Alexa skills. There’s a short Codecademy course on how to do this. It explains that Alexa provides a set of built-in capabilities, referred to as skills, that define how you can interact with the device. For example, Alexa’s built-in skills include playing music, reading the news, getting a weather forecast, and querying Wikipedia. So, you could say things like: Alexa, what’s the weather in Timbuktu.
Anyone can develop their own custom skills by using the Alexa Skills Kit (ASK). (The skills can only be used in the UK, US and Germany, presumably for now.) An Amazon user “enables” the skill after which it works on any of her Alexa-enabled devices. Et voilà, she simply says the wake phrase to access the skill. This is pretty cool.
What Does This Mean for ICT4D?
Is the day coming, not long from now, when machine-based voice assistants are ICT4D’s greatest helpers? Will it open doors of convenience for all and doors of inclusion for people with low digital skills or literacy? Hmmm. There’s a lot of ground to cover before that happens.
While natural language processing has come a looooong way, it’s far from perfect either. Comments about this abound — this one concerning Question of the Day, a popular Alexa skill:
Alexa sometimes does not hear the answer correctly, even though I try very hard to enunciate. It’s frustrating when I’ve gotten the answer right — not even by guessing, but actually knew it — and Alexa comes back and tells me I’ve gotten it wrong!
In ICT4D, there’s isn’t always room for error. What about sensitive content and interactions that can easily go awry? Is it likely that soon someone will say Alexa, send 100 dollars to my mother in the Philippines? What if she sends the money to the brother in New Orleans?
Other challenges include Alexa’s language range, cost, the need for online connectivity and, big one, privacy. There is a risk in being tied to one provider, one tech giant. This stuff should be based on open standards.
Still, it is interesting and exciting to see this move from Amazon and contemplate how it could affect ICT4D. What are your thoughts for how voice for development (V4D) could make a social impact?
Here’s a parting challenge to ICTWorks readers: Try out Amazon Skills and tell us whether it’s got legs for development? An ICT4D skill, if you will. (It can be something simple for now, not Alexa, eliminate world poverty).
Image: CC-BY-NC by Rob Albright