Vocal Objects, Lonely People?

Robin NICHOLS

10 min reading time

A broken heart surrounded by connected objects

By giving inanimate things a voice, are we muting our interpersonal relationships?

At CALLR, we know how powerful voice interactions are. Hearing someone on the phone is reassuring, familiar.  Voice connections are still more reliable, delivery-wise, than text messages. Calling someone on the phone is something virtually anyone is comfortable doing, old or young, “connected” or not.

But let me play devil’s advocate for a moment.  Is it possible that voice technology is leading society down a dangerous road? Let me explain.


Voice technology and voice user interfaces (VUIs) are popping up everywhere.  Amazon’s Alexa or Google Home are excellent examples.  As screens get smaller, and the IoT more ubiquitous, consumers need a convenient way to interface with their connected world.

Voice, as a hands-free mode of communication that pretty much everyone possesses, is a natural solution.  Asking your connected thermometer to lower the temperature or ordering your car to turn off the radio is a lot more convenient than typing those commands – especially if you’re taking care of 3 hyperactive children or navigating a tricky intersection.  In a few years, consumers might be talking to their refrigerators, homes, cars, computers, appliances – basically, inanimate objects – all day long.

But my question is this: what kind of unintended emotional consequences might these new person-to-object interactions have?

The Power of the Human Voice

You know it intuitively – when you talk to or about someone – or something – you develop more of an emotional connection to it/him/her than if you merely typed the same thoughts.  For brands, this is important. The 2017 Speak Easy report explained,

“Our neuroscience research gives early indication that speaking to a brand delivers a deeper emotional connection than interacting with it through type or touch. When people asked a question involving a brand name, their brain activity showed a significantly stronger emotional response compared to people typing that same brand question.”1

Impact of voice on emotional response to brands

Image from Speak Easy, a report co-authored by J. Walter Thompson Innovation Group London and Mindshare Futures.

Indeed, we’re so attached to the human voice that we even tend to read text messages aloud in our heads. Psychologist John Suler explains in his book, Psychology of the Digital Age, “When reading another’s message, it is also possible that you “hear” that person’s words using your own voice. We tend to subvocalize as we read, thereby projecting the sound of our voice into the other person’s message. Unconsciously, it feels as if we are talking to/with ourselves.”2

This power of the human voice is being taken seriously by designers of our connected environments: TechCrunch reported this April that, “Amazon’s Alexa is going to sound more human,” seeing as she is now able to whisper, pause for emphasis by taking a breath, adjust the rate, pitch and volume of her speech, and more.  Clearly, for Amazon, bringing Alexa to life means creating a believable voice for her.  And they’re rightvoice is an aural fingerprint, a unique representation of someone’s personality. Why else would Mark Zuckerberg choose the commanding voice of Morgan Freeman for his own virtual assistant, Jarvis, or the seductive Scarlett Johansson be cast as Samantha in ‘Her’?

More emotional connection via VUI is better… right?

Speaking is emotionally evocative.  For many, this is an excellent way to do something that’s very much needed – break our dependence on screens and inject some emotion into our relationship with tech.

MIT’s David Rose, for example, argues convincingly in his book, Enchanted Objects, for creating connected devices rooted in humanity’s fundamental desires as expressed in fairytales and myth.  Hence Rose’s invention of an ambient umbrella that glows blue when rain is near (Lord of the Rings fans will understand this reference), or an ‘energy orb’ that shifts colors to indicate the energy consumption rate of your home.

A periodic table organizing enchanted connected objects

David Rose envisions a world populated with ‘enchanted objects,’ designed to respond to our fundamental human desires. Image source

Rose is fearful of a ‘sterile’ world dominated by screens, as he explains:

I have a recurring nightmare. It is years into the future. All the wonderful everyday objects we once treasured have disappeared, gobbled up by an unstoppable interface: a slim slab of black glass. Books, calculators, clocks, compasses, maps, musical instruments, pencils, and paintbrushes, all are gone […] We interact with screens 90 percent of our waking hours. The result is a colder, more isolated, less humane world. Perhaps it is more efficient, but we are less happy.”

Rose is skeptical of the screen as the primary interface for the connected future. And it’s not just him – anyone who’s watched the hit series Black Mirror, or even the cult classic Blade Runner, will know what he’s talking about.  However, Rose does propose a solution: in his ideal world of ‘enchanted objects,’ technology infuses ordinary things with a bit of magic to create a more satisfying interaction and evoke an emotional response (check out the chart above).

Rose would therefore probably feel quite optimistic about VUIs’ ability to make this vision a reality, both because voice user interfaces are an alternative to the “black slab,” as well as because voice is already an emotionally charged medium.  Isn’t it better to ‘chat’ to a connected object, like you would a friend, than to be constantly typing with your eyes glued to a screen?  Isn’t it better that we can add voice communication to our connected objects that will soon come to dominate our public and private spaces?

Scene from Black Mirror, man on bed looking at room with screens for walls

Science fiction has long dialogued with our simultaneous attraction and fear of technology – and screens in particular. The recent hit series Black Mirror addresses many of society’s current digital anxieties. Image source 

“I want to have a feeling, I need to send a text.”

 

To answer this question, (and get to the heart of the matter), let me quote another MIT professor, Sherry Turkle, from a 2012 TED talk:

We’re lonely, but we’re afraid of intimacy. And so from social networks to sociable robots, we’re designing technologies that will give us the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship.”

What does she mean by this?

We’ve developed communication devices that give us the instant gratification of digitalized human connection – a text message, Facebook like, retweet – to the point that we’re becoming dependent on them. We need our phones and computers so we don’t feel lonely – ultimately, so we feel alive.  “So before it was: I have a feeling, I want to make a call,” she explains. “Now it’s: I want to have a feeling, I need to send a text.”

So for example, many people share with me this wish, that some day a more advanced version of Siri, the digital assistant on Apple’s iPhone, will be more like a best friend, someone who will listen when others won’t. I believe this wish reflects a painful truth that I’ve learned in the past 15 years. That feeling that no one is listening to me is very important in our relationships with technology. That’s why it’s so appealing to have a Facebook page or a Twitter feed — so many automatic listeners. And the feeling that no one is listening to me make us want to spend time with machines that seem to care about us.

Sherry Turkle, Connected, but alone? TED 2012

The fact that we let machines distract our precious attention away from our human companions is already a real problem.  Recent work by Dr. James Roberts showed that nearly half of participants in a study on relationships and smartphones reported being ‘phone snubbed’ by their partner. Worse, people who reported higher levels of so-called ‘phubbing’ also reported higher levels of relationship conflict.

You can probably see where I’m going with this.  People are already letting their personal devices get in the way of their personal relationships. As we create even more human-like, emotionally charged objects that we talk to, confide in, and question all day long, won’t this make us even more emotionally dependant on technology, at the expense of our ‘true’ interpersonal relationships?

Are we that far away from a world where, at the end of a long day, one might prefer discussing with their refrigerator what to have for dinner instead of running it by their spouse? Would a moody teen prefer confiding in a connected diary than in a parent? What about asking a connected ‘magic mirror’ how you look instead of a friend? Would you get an answer you like better? Just how easy will it be in a few years to surround ourselves with always listening, ever-amenable, ersatz ‘friends’ that can cater to our emotional needs without asking anything from us in return?

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Human-centered Technology

I’m not suggesting that we turn away from our devices, just that we develop a more self-aware relationship with them, with each other and with ourselves.”

Sherry Turkle, Connected, but alone? TED 2012

The reality of interpersonal connection is messy and counterintuitive. “We slip into thinking that always being connected is going to make us feel less alone.” Sherry explained. “But we’re at risk, because actually it’s the opposite that’s true. If we’re not able to be alone, we’re going to be more lonely.”  And to learn to be alone, we need to establish some boundaries with technology.

Sherry has a few tips: “Start thinking of solitude as a good thing. Make room for it. Find ways to demonstrate this as a value to your children. Create sacred spaces at home — the kitchen, the dining room — and reclaim them for conversation.”  Dr. Robert’s suggests something similar: designate “no cell” zones in your home, try a phone-free bedroom for one week, keep phones off the table, practice phone etiquette.

As voice technology becomes more sophisticated and widespread, finding its way into our transportation systems, public spaces and homes, we need to remember why it’s there.  Ambient intelligence researcher Norbert Streitz makes a useful distinction between System-Oriented, Importunate Smartness and People-Oriented, Empowering Smartness. The former creates genius tech which ends up frustrating people, and the latter puts machine intelligence at the service of the human experience.

This is pretty much the idea – that we need to keep focused. In ten or twenty years, ambient intelligence, VUIs and the Internet of Things might create a connected world we could end up getting lost in. It’s up to the designers and consumers of this connected world to remember why we’re driving these technological advances in the first place, and keep an eye on how our new technology is shaping our collective behavior.  In other words, technology should work in the service of the human experience, and not the other way around.  In an era of cyberbullying, ‘fake news’ and the like, this is paramount.

I agree with Sherry: “I’m not suggesting that we turn away from our devices, just that we develop a more self-aware relationship with them, with each other and with ourselves.”

  • [1] Walter Thompson Innovation Group London and Mindshare Futures, Speak Easy Report, pg. 38, April 2017.
  • [2] John Suler, Psychology of the Digital Age: Humans Become Electric (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 103.