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Hey Cortana, Are You Talking to Me?

We’ve written before on this blog about online translation tools online translation tools and Google has recently joined Skype in making available a real-time interpretation tool. Neither have changed the world.

We’ve also written before about speech-to-text tools such as Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana. Until now such tools have been seen as curiosities on mobile phones, something that we try out with friends, then use rarely, if ever.

However, Microsoft now have Windows 10 in public beta testing and at the core of this new operating system is Cortana, an ever-present, ever-listening speech-to-command application bolted to the taskbar.

But computers continuously listening out for our commands brings about two main problems.

The most obvious problem is a psychological paradigm: how many of us want to speak to our computers? How many of us feel happy sitting amongst friends or family and voicing a command to a laptop in lieu of typing? How many of us would feel awkward even sitting in an empty room and effectively talking to no-one?

The second problem assumes that our technocratic society accepts a level of normality in talking to computers. Now, what happens in a shared space when multiple people are stating commands to neighbouring devices? Even if such an option was turned off in an office, what will your reaction be while sitting in a cafe and your laptop or phone adds an appointment of which you have no knowledge? Let’s hope you see it happening, otherwise “Send email to mum…” might sow confusion amongst several unrelated parents.

The ongoing human-machine interaction debate

Humans have evolved in societies and consequently we have adaptive brains which can discern nebulous contexts and determine what to focus on at a barely-conscious level. Computers aren’t nebulous, they’re highly deterministic and although they can be programmed to appear less deterministic, this is still based upon pre-determined humanistic assumptions.

Is this is an example of a technology of which we have little or no need? On the other hand, I would argue that an increasing portion of our lives is being given over to technology, so perhaps the eventual outcome will be that people won’t care how talking to a computer appears to others – we already make aspirational technology purchases so why should it prevent us from modifying our behaviour?

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