Much has been made about our current addiction to screens. Many of us have found ourselves trapped in an endless cycle of dopamine hits as we check our phone to see if anyone has liked our post, or replied to a pithy comment.

Some tech companies are creating technical solutions to help us monitor and limit our screen time, such as Google’s Digital Wellbeing program. Many articles have been written with tips on how to break our phone addiction. But I believe one of the solutions to this problem is something that’s already here: voice user interfaces. In addition to cutting down on screen time, they also foster communal activities and help bring dignity and independence to those who may not be able to access the Internet in traditional ways.

At our house, we have a rule: no devices at the dinner table. But sometimes, we have questions! A recent sampling from our family includes: “How old is Rosanne Cash?” “When was ‘A Wonderful Christmas Time’ by Paul McCartney, written?” and “When was the Copper Age?” Rather than pulling out my phone, and getting sucked into my social media feed, I can simply say “Hey Google” and it’s as if the Google Assistant briefly joins our dinnertime conversation.

Everyone can hear the question I asked, and everyone can hear the response.

Many people report issues with having their phone in their bedrooms at night, checking that one last email before bed, and being bathed in blue light, which has been found to interfere with sleep. At the same time, many of us rely on our phones to help us through a meditation exercise, set reminders, and as an alarm clock. A voice-only device in the bedroom can still do these basic necessities, but help provide distance.

Voice interfaces can encourage community, as well. In the Spring 2018 NPR and Edison Smart Audio Report, nearly half of users say they use their smart speaker with others in their household “most of the time”. In The Future of Voice and the Implications for News, a similar effect was noted.

 

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Rather than each individual focusing on their screen, and looking down, being able to do these activities while still looking at the world around them makes the time more communal.

Smart speakers aren’t just for the young and tech-savvy. Ownership of smart speakers is increasing the most for folks in the age group 55-75. Although many seniors own smartphones or tablets, the number of people over 65 in the US who own smartphones is the smallest demographic, at 46%. Voice interfaces can be another way to stay connected in those cases, as illustrated by a quote from the “Future of Voice” study above.

 

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Finally, there is the benefit of voice technology to those with disabilities such as visual impairment, difficulty with fine motor control, or memory loss. Because the devices can be connected to thermostats, TVs, fans, lights, etc, access can be given to people who may not be able to operate a remote control, or a light switch, or see the TV listings on the screen.

When designing products, we often consider the “big picture” items, but fail to think of the myriad of small things we do every day that not everyone can do. My 105-year-old grandmother once told me the worst thing about being over 100 was losing the ability to walk. She lives in an assisted living home, and can summon a caretaker at any time, but she doesn’t do so for what she considers “minor” requests like adjusting the blinds to let in the best light, or asking what they’re having for dinner. A voice interface could bring about these benefits.

One man created a fun “Presidential Quiz” game on a smart speaker for his father, who had recently suffered a stroke, in order to help him improve his cognitive abilities. The company Marvee specializes in voice experiences for those over 65, letting seniors send messages to friends and family members, which can be delivered as texts or emails.

In a 2017 Wall Street Journal article, “The End of Typing: The Next Billion Mobile Users Will Rely on Video and Voice”, shows how a man from New Delhi, despite the fact he’s not very comfortable with reading and typing, can now use voice to check train schedules, send messages to family, and download movies. Voice allows people to leapfrog screens and get straight to what is needed. Voice interfaces are not a perfect solution, of course. They are still in early days and have many technical and design issues. And for those with hearing impairments, or with non-standard speech, the technology is currently out of reach. But they are not just a flash-in-the-pan technology; they have real benefits across many parts of society, particularly for those people who are often left behind with the latest gadgets. Voice interfaces will not be the only interface in the future, but they will be a critical one.

 

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This article was co-authored by Cathy Pearl and Yaz How and is a part of RE•WORK’s white paper “AI for Social Good” which you can read by clicking here. You can also learn more about RE•WORK’s events and conferences for AI and deep learning

Cathy Pearl is Head of Conversation Design Outreach at Google, and the author of the O’Reilly book, “Designing Voice User Interfaces”. She’s been designing and creating Voice User Interfaces (VUIs) for nearly 20 years and is passionate about helping everyone make the best conversational experiences possible. Previously, Cathy was VP of User Experience at Sense.ly, whose virtual nurse avatar helps people stay healthy. She has worked on everything from programming NASA helicopter pilot simulators to designing a conversational iPad app in which Esquire magazine’s style columnist tells users what they should wear on a first date. She has an MS in Computer Science from Indiana University and BS in Cognitive Science from UC San Diego.

 

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