Conversation in the age of voice.


This is the voice. It is the voice that speaks to you. You hear it without knowing where it comes from. It gives you information, answers your questions, carries out your orders on demand. Like a digital butler at your service. An invisible robot, a ghost that haunts our phones, boxes and electronic devices. It is everywhere and nowhere.

Jenny or John?

The voice can be personalised as required. Intelligent, it records and learns as it goes along. We speak to it in "natural language", just like another human being. Currently, 16% of homes in the United States are equipped with connected speakers, a figure that should rise to 75% by 2020 (source: VoiceLabs 2017 Voice Report, InfoScout, 2016).

Through its ability to support a conversation, the speaker is gradually becoming a "member of the family" (Nicolas Maynard, national manager of Alexa France). Branding facilitates personification, through naming that is close to first names or nicknames, the empathy that the machine develops and a sense of humour that breaks its coldness.

A revolution announced

The success of the connected speaker can be explained by its accessibility, firstly in terms of price, but above all in terms of technology: no skills are required, use is intuitive and frees up our hands. The reaction of the device is instantaneous, it does our bidding at any time of the day or night. The young parent can order a new pack of nappies by sprinkling talcum powder on the bottom of their newborn.

Technology is redefining our interpersonal relationships

Brands want to be "conversational" (#buzzword), through platforms, chatbots or voice. According to communication expert Clifford Nass, the human brain "rarely distinguishes between talking to a machine - even those machines with very poor comprehension and language - and a person" (Wired for Speech. How Voice Activates and Advances the Human-Computer Relationship, MIT Press, 2005). This is the ELIZA effect, named after the chatbot developed in 1966 by MIT. It expresses the tendency we have to unconsciously assimilate the behaviour of a computer to that of a human being and to encourage emotional investment.

But can we really have a conversation with Alexa?

Is it a conversation when the other is all for us?

The purpose of the robot assistant is to satisfy our requests, 24/7. It does not take days off and never complains. You don't even have to say "please, thank you", the codes of respectful relationship are lost.

We are a little worried about those who are learning to speak in our time. For the rest of us, we keep our social habits. When they launched, Siri, Alexa, Cortana and Google Assistant all had female voices, because men and women « prefer the sound of a woman's voice ». We would be conditioned to see women in administrative roles (Adrienne LaFrance, in the Atlantic 2016). Le Monde wonders whether "interacting on a daily basis with an artefact that so diligently interprets the role of the drudgery of woman does not flatter our old phallocratic tendencies, leading to a reinforcement of gender inequalities."

Besides, is it necessary to assign a gender to a robot? Stanford University asks this question in its study "Are computers gender-neutral? The first gender-neutral voice was born this year: Q, whose frequency is always between 145 and 175 Hz, thus avoiding gender extremes.

Is it a conversation when you are doing something else?

Voice is the ability to use your hands for other things, which is how the tech giants present their innovations to us - with their hands busy or unavailable. Can we direct our attention (and our full awareness) to the conversation when we are cooking, driving or playing sports? Is it comparable to having a conversation with another human being through an earpiece?

Or is it more a matter of snippets of words to an entity that notes and opines without thinking?

Finally, can we talk about a conversation if the other can collect private information about us and use it against our interest? Connected speakers thus have the power to mix Arabic phone, gossip and undeniable voice evidence, without our knowledge or informed consent (unless we have read the full TOS).

Technology influences our social relationships and even tries to replace them

Beyond orders, the voice can help to fight against exclusion and loneliness, especially the elderly. Accenture Interactive has developed a Google Home app for the Swedish group Stockholm Exergi that can ask us about our lives, gradually going into intimate details and then telling our personal story through an audio recording or a book. The information is stored locally, avoiding the risk of piracy.

The conversation nowadays seems to be mainly one-way. While some adjustments are still needed for smooth human-machine communication, misunderstandings are part of any dialogue. Does Siri not understand your accent and interprets another word? Has the robot been hacked and is repeating a hate speech? The error is also and primarily in human relations. Fortunately, technology learns, adapts and improves. With Alexa Blueprints, Amazon proposes to personalise its voice assistant so that it reacts as closely as possible to our requests and becomes the real memory of our home, which it will know at the tip of its fingers (so to speak). A way of further erasing the brand/intimacy barrier.