Waiting For Efficient Voice Control

When I started playing with computers, audio output was primitive and there were no means of audio input at all. Voice controlled computers were pure science fiction. When the Sound Blaster gave my computer a voice, it also enabled primitive voice recognition. The mechanics were primitive and the recognition poor, but the promise was there.

Voice recognition capabilities have improved in the years since. Phone-operated systems have enabled voice controlled menus within in the past decade or so. (“For balance and payment information, press or say 4.”) It is now considered easy to recognize words in a specific domain.

Just within the past few years, advances in neural networks (“deep learning”) have enabled tremendous leaps in recognition accuracy. No longer constrained to differentiating numbers, like navigating a voice menu, the voice commands can be general enough to be interesting. And so now we have digital assistants like Apple’s Siri, Google’s Assistant, Amazon’s Alexa, and Microsoft’s Cortana.

But when I tried to communicate with them, I still feel frustrated by the experience. The problems are rarely technological now – the recognition rate is pretty good. But there was something else. I had been phrasing it as “low-bandwidth communication” but I just read an article from Wired that offers a much better explanation: These voice-controlled robots are designed to be chatty.

Chatty Bots
Link to “Stop the Chitchat” article on Wired

The problem has moved from one of technical implementation (“how do we recognize words”) to one of user experience (“how do we react to words we recognize”) and I do not appreciate the current state of the art at all. The article lays out reasons why designers choose to do this: To make the audio assistants less intimidating to people new to the technology, make them sound like a polite butler instead of an efficient computer. I understand the reason, but I’m eager for the industry to move past this introductory phase. Or at least start offering a “power user” mode.

After all, when I perform a Google search, I don’t type in the query like I would to a person. I don’t type “Hey I’d like to read about neural networks, could you bring up the Wikipedia article, please?” No, I type in “wikipedia neural network

Voice interaction with a computer should be just as terse and efficient, but we’re not there yet. Even worse, we’re intentionally not there due to user experience design intent, and that just makes me grind my teeth.

Today, if I wanted a voice-controlled light, I have to say something like “Alexa, turn on the hallway lights.

I look forward to the day when I can call out:



LA Times Writer’s Take on 3-D Printing

As a Los Angeles Times subscriber, I generally appreciate their coverage of technology. I may not always agree with the accuracy or their assessments, but I appreciate their effort to make technological topics accessible for non-techies. A few months ago they ran an article on 3D printing. The writer borrowed a MakerBot Replicator for six weeks and wrote about their experience.

LA Times 3D Printer
Follow the link for the full article.

Most technology articles tend to be printed as part of the Business section. This article ran in the Home & Garden section because the writer was evaluating a 3D printer in the role of a home appliance. As soon as I realized this, I said to myself “oh no” and my expectation for the article went downhill.

Over the course of this six-week experiment, the author downloaded progressively more complex and ambitious designs off Thingiverse and printed them. The author then wrote about the experience of printing and the (lack of) usefulness of the results. The author was less than impressed by the current state of the art in 3D printing. One sentence from the conclusion: “I merely toyed with the machine for its novelty without finding a conclusive use for it.”

Reading through this, the voice inside my head was screaming: “You’re doing it wrong!” The author never explored printing their own creation. Something new and novel just for themselves. This is, in my view, the most important point of 3D printing and this article’s missed it entirely.

Here’s an analogy with a 2D paper printer commonplace in homes and offices: A writer borrows a laser printer for a few weeks, goes on the internet to download progressively longer PDFs of books written by other people. The writer never explores the freedom of printing books of their own writing. After printing a few books written by others, the author concludes there’s no reason to have a printer at home when it’s cheaper and faster to just buy already-printed books.

I can understand how this article went off on the wrong track due to the flawed premise, but I still disagree with it.