Technologies Won’t Obsolete The Human Voice

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On several occasions throughout history, the arrival of new technologies has been heralded as the demise for old ones. For example, radio was left for dead after the inventions of the television, cable television service, and the Internet. Similarly, in today’s world many people are concerned that the introduction of social media and mobile applications will spell the end for voice transactions and, in particular, speech recognition. 

Back in the 1930s, approximately two-thirds of American households owned a radio. After World War II, that percentage had ballooned to a staggering 95 percent. That was the height of radio’s reign. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, technological innovation and broadcasting both exploded, making television an attractive alternative to radio. Television posed a serious threat because it modeled its programming after radio, even engaging some of the same personalities who had appeared on radio programs. And, of course, there was the added attraction of moving pictures. In the ensuing decade, innovations like the cathode-ray tube lowered the price of televisions, which boosted market penetration. 

Slow to respond to the television revolution, radio was thought to be dead. But in the mid-1950s, the invention of the transistor radio reinvigorated the medium and allowed people to take radios with them wherever they went. As a result, radio found its niche in the new television-controlled market and survived.

In 1972, Charles Dolan and Gerald Levin launched the nation’s first pay-TV network, Home Box Office. By the end of the 1970s, an estimated 16 million households had subscribed to a cable service. In 1984, Congress passed the Cable Act, which established a more favorable business environment for cable industry growth. During the next decade, cable subscriptions skyrocketed, leading many people to think radio would perish. Once again, however, radio turned to innovation to reinvent the medium. This time, emerging technology was leveraged, as cable was used to deliver its product. Now through cable feeds, radio was able to broadcast syndicated programming to listeners from coast to coast. And radio had dodged another bullet.

Radio was threatened again in the late 1980s when the Web became all the rage. The Web allowed people to peruse virtually any data whenever they desired. Surely this invention would spell the end of radio. However, like the phoenix, radio emerged from the ashes. Through the introduction of satellite radio, such as Sirius and XM radio, radio not only found a way to broaden its reach but also did so while collecting subscription fees.

Fast-forward to today, and many believe that the combination of social media and mobile applications could usher in the demise of voice transactions. Some forecast declines in voice contact rates as soon as 2014. The reason behind this argument is that consumers are expected to turn to these media to meet their needs and forgo the voice channel. However, a recent study conducted by the University of Missouri on the use of a human voice to build relationships on social media indicates that a move away from the voice channel may not be imminent. The study concluded that the human voice contributes to the cultivation of high-quality relationships between an organization and its client base. The study shows that even though the Internet is a strong communication medium, customers still need human interaction. Since this is a fundamental human concept, voice transactions and, more importantly, speech recognition will continue to be a strong means of communication.  

In addition, the recent acquisition of Skype by Microsoft indicates that industry leaders recognize that voice contact is a key to successful communication. Microsoft has plans to implement Skype in Windows Live tools, Outlook, Xbox, and social media outlets.

Therefore, like radio, the need and demand for voice and speech remain. In the future, voice may be delivered through the Internet and mobile devices. But, like radio, there will be a place in the future for voice and especially speech. Indeed, it is possible that voice may grow to more prominence than ever, as social, mobile, and video bring us closer together. ? 

Portions of this article were extracted from the University of Missouri paper The Use of Human Voice as a Relationship Building Strategy on Social Networking Sites.

Aaron Fisher is director of speech services at West Interactive, where he oversees the design, development, and implementation of speech applications for the company. He can be reached at asfisher@west.com.


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