With the Convenience of Voice Technology Comes Great Responsibility

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Voice technology is on the rise, and it provides so many benefits on so many levels. The technology's transformative power is already disrupting several industries for the better. From food to advertising, art, education, and health care, it isn't easy to find a space in which conversational tech isn't making headway in a transformative way.

However, there's a cost to all that convenience: for voice tech to work, it requires data. And some of that data can be pretty sensitive. So while voice tech is a liberating and powerful tool, with great power comes great responsibility, as they say.

I'm grateful to have witnessed the brilliance of the speech industry's talented community of developers, technologists, and marketers as their imagination and skill have led to the impressive innovations we have today. As the industry continues to evolve, we also have a responsibility to keep that data secure and protect the very people that it is meant to serve. Voice technology is still relatively new, and one of the keys to its enduring success will be striking the right balance between convenience and collection.

At this year's VOICE Global, I had the chance to discuss these issues with some of our speakers. One such speaker was the Robert Lewis Shayon Professor of Media Systems & Industries at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, Joseph Turow. He recently wrote a book, The Voice Catchers: How Marketers Listen in to Exploit Your Emotions, Your Privacy, and Your Wallet (Yale, 2021), which focuses on the automated data collection that vocal assistants perform and of which many users are just not aware.

"Vocal assistants are extremely seductive on many levels. At the same time, the companies that put them out try to play down the possible and even actual surveillance that occurs with respect to voice," Professor Turow shared. "A lot of advertisers see voice as value added to understanding people. Age, health, weight, height are what you can get from people's voices."

And he's right. As the voice tech industry grows, it will need to define the boundaries of ethical use of biometric data in the commercial space. While that might be a long-term challenge that will come with some bumps along the way, some in the voice tech community are already coming up with solutions.

A Possible Solution

Ojnjen Todic of Keen Research,with whom I also had the chance to talk at this year's VOICE Global, might well have one of the solutions to this problem. Keen Research and Todic have been developing on-device vocal assistants.

Usually, when you use a vocal assistant, your command (i.e., your voice) is sent to a third-party server for processing, and the server then sends the response over the internet to your device. The user data is collected when the command hits the server. With on-device processing, there is no third-party server in the equation, just you and your device. And you don't even need an internet connection at all.

That effectively solves the privacy issue around voice tech. But it also provides other benefits, like simpler system architecture, easier customization, and more predictable pricing. This is possible because, with on-device processing, each user has dedicated resources running entirely on-device without dependency to the cloud. And any one of the above points can be a significant driver for growth in the voice tech industry.

Of course, not every device can handle on-device voice assistants. As Onjen says, "There are some use cases where voice-processing can run only on-device because those devices don't have internet access. There are other use cases where it has to run in the cloud. That could be a watch that doesn't have a CPU that's powerful enough, and you've got to stream. But then there are a lot of devices in-between where you can do it either way. And it makes a lot of sense to do it on-device for all of the reasons I mentioned earlier."

We have a responsibility moving forward. Clearly, we're going to need multifaceted solutions to solve all of these issues, but that requires industry commitment to continue to make headway. I look forward to working with all of you to make sure the future of voice tech grows by providing valuable and meaningful experiences and interactions while responsibly protecting user privacy.

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