The Future is Voice Search? Spare a Thought For Those of Us With Speech Impediments

By Chris Thomson on at

 

It may have initially been dismissed as a gimmick, a fad doomed to go the same way as 3D televisions, robot vacuum cleaners and having disposable income, but voice search looks like it might actually hang around for a wee while.

A billion voice searches a month. 40% of people using voice search a day. 30% of searches to be done without a screen by 2020. All sorts of numbers and percentages are currently being thrown around regarding voice search, and while these have to be taken with a handful of salt, it’s clear that we’re going to be seeing a lot more of it.

This step forward in technology is fascinating and important, but also a little problematic for me: I have a stammer.

For those whose knowledge of stammering goes little further than The King’s Speech, the condition isn’t altogether uncommon in children as their language skills develop. However, it only affects around 1% of adults. I’ve had a stammer since I was seven or eight years old so it’s something I’ve had to learn to manage and deal with just about every time I open my mouth.

Naturally, voice search isn’t something I’ve been clamouring to embrace.

Apple’s voice search assistant, Siri, is probably the most well known and widely owned voice search enabled tech, debuting on the iPhone 4S back in (amazingly) 2011. Naturally, Apple’s competitors have developed similar technology and voice search is now largely considered standard in mobile devices.

For the time being we can still use our phones and tablets perfectly well without ever uttering a word using a good ol’ fashioned touchscreen keyboards, but we’re now also using technology solely powered by our voices.

I have an Amazon Echo Dot sat in my kitchen and while I don’t use it to play hide and seek with the kids or whatever other nonsense the TV advert suggests we do, I bloody love using it to set timers so I don’t burn dinner. But the whole issue is that I literally can’t use it without talking to it, which, for me, proves a little tricky at times.

I normally don’t have any issue with triggering the Dot. Bringing it to life with ‘Alexa…’ rarely proves an issue as the letter ‘A’ isn’t one that I regularly stammer over — yes, it's common to struggle with some letters and sounds more than others — but then I only have a few seconds to speak the rest of the command before it switches off.

“Alexa, p-p-p-p-play Sp-Sp-ace Oddity by D-D-D-avid B-B-B...”

At that point, Alexa usually interrupts me to tell me she doesn’t have a clue what I’m on about. However, sometimes I open my mouth and literally no sound will come out, at which point she simply gets fed up waiting for me to finish the sentence and goes back to sleep, silently judging me having the gall to wake her up in the first place.

This is something I’ve also experienced with voice recognition software used by banks and insurance companies on their helplines:

“Briefly describe your problem so we can direct you to the right department.”

“Mmmmmmy car i-i-i-insura….”

“Briefly describe your problem so we can direct you to the right department.”

“Mmmmy c-c-car insurance is ab-b-b-out t-t-t-to….”

[Line goes dead]

It’s not quite as embarrassing as having a real life person hang up the phone on you, however, purely because they think the line is dodgy or that there’s no-one there.

I’ll try again and hope for a better result. Maybe I’ll succeed, maybe I’ll have the same result, as is the unpredictable nature of having a stammer. Any words that start with what are known as plosive consonants (p, d, b, for example) are more likely to cause an issue for some reason, which is why I have developed a hatred for Samsung’s Bixby software. Bixby can do one.

All this can make using voice search a frustrating, time consuming and altogether exhausting experience, and one that reminds me I lack the ability to adequately perform one of our most basic natural functions.

I shouldn't be so naive to assume my speech impediment is worse than any other, however. Depending on the severity, those who lisp may also encounter similar issues when using voice search. Most devices will still recognise a slight lisp correctly, but a severe lisp is likely to cause all kinds of confusion, either making words unintelligible or actually altering their meaning entirely - good luck trying to get Alexa to play Seasons in the Sun or Cecelia if you have a lisp.

At this point, it’s important for me to acknowledge the many invaluable applications voice search is already proving to have and I genuinely believe we’re much better off for having it. Up until now, it’s been incredibly difficult, if not impossible, for those with certain disabilities to use the technology most of us take for granted every day.

For example, If we want to know what the weather’s going to do later, most of us can pick up our phones or open our laptops and tap away to find the information we need. However, for those who are blind or without use of their hands and arms, this has previously been something they’ve had to accept is beyond them. Voice search changes that.

Likewise, car manufacturers are incorporating voice search into their vehicles, allowing you to call someone, use sat nav or change the radio station without fiddling with cumbersome knobs and dials. It’s not difficult to see how this could literally be a life saver, helping keep drivers focused on what’s happening on the road.

So before I get accused of moaning about finding it difficult to use technology that helps so many others, I fully understand that I’m in a very privileged position that the majority of tech is available to me. I’m simply presenting an alternative viewpoint from someone with a different disability (yes, it is a disability) and how increasing use of voice search could make life difficult for me in the future.

So what do I expect these companies to do about making voice search more accessible to those with speech impediments? Well, nothing to be quite honest. Perhaps the voice recognition software could become more astute and reliable at recognising what we’re trying to say, but if I’m struggling to get any words out at all then I think it’s a bit much to ask my little Echo Dot to suddenly become a mind reader.

My only real hope is that voice search doesn’t become the sole method of obtaining information from my devices - it’s no coincidence that Google, Amazon and other tech giants seem to be putting their efforts into making us use devices without a screen. Realistically, I know this is unlikely in the near future - can you imagine the racket outside shop changing rooms, on buses or in hospital waiting rooms as everybody chatters away to their phone without a real person on the other end?

However, these companies are unapologetically committed to making voice search a central part of their future plans, which is going to open our devices up to intriguing and exciting new applications and ways of using them, but for me it might mean my little Echo Dot gathers more and more dust.

Maybe I’ll just stick to setting timers.