Speech applications have often taken human jobs away. But could they soon lead to new opportunities?
Can speech recognition today allow an ordinary person to find a better lot in life almost immediately? Something positive, immediate, and certain?
Over the past few years, we’ve seen a revolution as handheld computing and ubiquitous high-speech networks migrated from the hands of commercial users to those of ordinary individuals. The transformation has been extraordinary and opened up new niches for entry-level jobs. As an example, consider alternative taxi services such as Uber and Lyft; they could not exist without handheld networked computers (a.k.a. smartphones) in the hands of both drivers and passengers.
Other computer-driven technologies removed entry barriers for higher-level jobs. As an example, artists can now sell their wares through specialty websites instead of building their own web presence. Street vendors can accept credit cards via their cell phones. I personally telecommute to my clients and rarely visit them in person; I have a high-tech job but retain an excellent personal life.
But what about speech technology? Twenty years ago, when asked to speak at a local high school, I trotted out my standard line: My job was to replace high school graduates who were “expensive to own and operate” with cheap computers running speech recognition. To this day, the replacement of people with machines remains our industry’s chief source of revenue.
The trend toward human replacement in the United States continues to grow; government policies greatly increased the cost of employment over the past eight years, and large-scale businesses can afford the cost of building replacement devices. And the trend is reaching down to the lower end: Surely you’ve seen airport restaurants that use tablets to take orders.
So I have to ask: Where does speech technology offer the ability for positive, immediate, and certain gain for an individual? Leave aside people who require assistance that speech technology makes affordable; I’m asking about new jobs, new careers, and new opportunities for the man on the street.
I have to admit that I do not yet see any large-scale job creation. But I believe I might just see indications of how this will come about.
If you follow questions about speech technology on StackOverflow, you’ll notice that many questions aren’t about how to build your own technology; they’re about how to interface to large providers such as Google.
Amazon’s speech-enabled Alexa is a service that provides a speech technology interface to Amazon—and to any service that is willing to partner with Amazon to create a “skill”—a service. Typical examples include answers to “Alexa, what is tomorrow’s weather forecast” or “Alexa, are flights on time at O’Hare airport?” (That one is easy; just program Alexa to say “No!”) Alexa supports thousands of “skills.” I don’t use Alexa myself, as I can’t imagine deliberately installing a spy microphone in my home, but even a cursory glance shows how Alexa continues to expand to new services and new market niches.
I think Alexa, and specifically Alexa’s speech technology, points the way to new business opportunities, and I’ll use it as an example. Imagine a “skill” for Alexa that provides concierge services. “Alexa, I need someone to pick up my dry cleaning.” “Alexa, I need someone to help me go to the grocery store.” “Alexa, I need a gentleman’s gentleman to help me select suitable attire for tonight’s soiree.”
A handful of “skills” already provide Alexa users with services from task-oriented companies, the best known of which is perhaps TaskRabbit. This points one possible way to higher employment. In just this one field, concierge services, I find it easy to conjecture half a dozen business models, from gig economy jobs to small franchises to nationwide chains to highly-specialized, highly trained “white glove” services.
I find this prospect quite exciting. I’m not certain to what extent the new possibilities for speech technology will expand my professional opportunities, but a robust economy and the prospect of more and better jobs for my friends and neighbors, based on technology in my field, provides tremendous personal gratification.
And yes, I do wish I had a gentleman’s gentleman on call.
Moshe Yudkowsky, Ph.D., is the president of Disaggregate Consulting and author of The Pebble and the Avalanche: How Taking Things Apart Creates Revolutions. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.