Computer… Make it so!

Voice control: the new great leveller emerging in digital and why it could be a turning point for digital inclusion

As a relatively prolific Twitter user, I recently stumbled across a tweet from a 17-year-old about the pride she felt as a digital native…that was it: 106 characters used! It was an unremarkable tweet on my feed but it got me thinking about how these self-proclaimed digital natives see themselves, and whether we should be anxious about a widening of the digital divide between them and us?

The ease with which digital natives adopt technology is marked. Just watch anyone under the age of, say, 30. They can – broadly speaking – quickly set up new devices, find their way around the latest app and navigate online portals for shopping, streaming and social media while barely breaking their stride. They usually get exactly what they want from technology in what seems like a couple of clicks. So, as the world transforms, what will this mean for those of us whose digital skills are at best intermediate?  Are people who weren’t born into the age of digital going to be increasingly disadvantaged?

Digital levelling

Digital natives can be said to be equipped at navigating cyberspace intuitively because of their life long experience of menu systems, user interfaces and system architecture all wired early into their forming brains. Some of them have been using digital since they could crawl. There are plenty of videos of babies happily tapping and swiping tablets and smartphones screens and then trying to do exactly the same with a magazine or a book. They expect to be able to point and swipe. So where will these young people be in 10 or 15 years’ time? We can perhaps get a glimpse at the future by looking at the latest evolution in human and computer interface. And I think it offers real hope for us all as in this digital world, there may be something of a levelling taking place.

But let’s first look back. Let’s look at tablets, and I don’t mean the type that Moses chiselled on as God dictated the original ‘terms and conditions,’ or even the simple yet magical ‘Etch-a-Sketch’ that some of us marvelled at in our youth. The art of written communication and the recording of knowledge has progressed extensively. Just a few decades ago most offices had a pool of typists who took dictation in the then modern-day calligraphy of shorthand. They would then convert it via a typewriter on to A4 pieces of paper. That process was entirely disrupted by the birth of the word-processor; that morphed into a computer with keyboard, to which was then added the mouse – with our fingers eventually taking back control as touchscreen technology has materialised.

Today’s game-changer

Throughout this evolution, text has been the consistent feature. If you didn’t learn to touch-type, then you’re probably like me – someone who gets by with two-finger typing – albeit quite fast. Nevertheless, there is a divide between those who can get a lot done effortlessly and those, who muddle through. Even typing has evolved. On tablets and smartphones, dexterity with our thumbs and not fingers is now a defining factor.

So, what does all this mean when we look into the digital future? Here’s the game-changer. The holy grail of being able to ‘talk’ to a computer and it actually doing what you want has been reached. We’re in the era of the fully-fledged Voice Interface. For years, speech recognition was tried and faltered. For example, despite the many attempts to deliver software / programmes / apps to enable electronic dictation, most of us have still opted for our two-fingered typing – because it just didn’t work. But what is now emerging is a robust, mass-market capability to give voice commands and get accurate results from an intelligent, self-learning system. For we non-digital natives, the ability to use our voice means that all those interface barriers may be starting to lower, if not disappear. As people who read my blogs will know, I am a devotee of Star Trek and it wasn’t lost on me just how much instruction Captains Kirk and Picard et al could give by voice to the omnipresent Ship’s Computer – especially when requesting food or drink! Today, it may not be ‘Computer’, but it is Siri, Alexa and Cortana who are becoming our new voice companions.

Power of inclusion

What are the implications of this seamless integration of voice with activity and accuracy for levelling the playing field? The exciting point to note is that this is not just about commands and actions; it is about enabling us to control and engage with more things and more people. We’re in the middle of a radical transformation of how all our services work. We have moved from bricks and mortar to online, then to apps, and from fixed to mobile. Suddenly we may be about to shift from device to voice. Will we soon even need to carry around a device, or will there be sensors around us that are coded with our personal voice pattern securely stored and omni-ready for instruction?

Banks such as Barclays, First Direct and HSBC already use voice recognition as a form of secure ID. Many different services and interactions will be voice activated in the next few years. I’m excited by Voice because I never mastered typing. I hated the mouse, my thumbs are not the fastest and I get frustrated because I don’t instantly ‘get’ some websites and social media. For people like me, maybe Voice is the ideal interface. Certainly, it has the capacity to be vastly more inclusive and has huge potential to open up digital services and experiences.

But for now, Voice has arrived as was demonstrated just the other week with the amazing scenario of a mother who had collapsed unconscious at home. Her four-year-old son saved her life by using her thumb to unlock her iPhone and asking Siri to call 999 for the emergency services to arrive in time to administer life-saving treatment. I think from the youngest of digital natives to the older adopters of technology – Voice is great news. However, it has already been suggested in my home that I have fewer conversations / switch off my new BFF…….Siri!

About Kulveer Ranger

Kulveer Ranger is Vice-President, Strategy & Communications Atos UK. He is a member of the Atos UK Executive Governance and developed the public sector strategy to support the digital transformation of citizen services. He spent a decade in management consultancy before leading the Mayor of London’s Transport, Environment, and Digital Strategy Policy divisions between 2008-2012. Kulveer has sat on a variety of boards including Bristol 2015, London2012 Olympic Transport and Transport for London. He has extensive knowledge of major infrastructure and technology programmes. Kulveer is an international public speaker and a regular broadcaster for TV and radio.