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The Coming Voice Recognition Revolution

Photo courtesy of Mashable.

"Take a letter, Miss Jones."

That's a line that seemed forever relegated to mid-20th century movies and oldies radio stations. Today even at the world's largest corporations you'll likely find the C-Suite pecking out their own letters. But the recently announced iPhone 4S may be heralding a return to the era of personal secretaries, this time in the form of digital assistants. The new iPhone includes sophisticated voice recognition technology that not only transcribes words but understands context. It can respond to questions and act on commands.

Voice recognition technology is by no means new, but it hasn't managed to work its way solidly into the mainstream market. It tends to be a bit choppy. I've never been able to maintain a smooth flow of dictation, having to verbally indicate punctuation, and even the best programs I've tried have struggled to differentiate words like where, ware and wear (not that typing alleviated those mistakes either). But Apple tends to get things right, and demos of the phone look promising. If Apple delivers on this, a truly effective technology combined with the widespread popularity of the iPhone and the masses of imitators are all likely to combine to bring voice recognition technology into everyday use.

As comfort with this type of interface increases, it will eventually seep into the office. That is a heady prospect. We can think and speak faster than we write. Our hands tend to be bottlenecks for our thoughts. Those of us who have diligently typed out our words for decades may be reluctant to compose in a different way, but kids growing up with this technology will no doubt have great ease with it. Whenever I doubt the ability of the young to adapt to new technology, I remind myself that some best-selling novels have been written on cell phones. I don't think handwriting will disappear any time soon, but it's actually easy to imagine a world without keyboards. I would be willing to wager in 20 years QWERTY will have as little meaning to young people and the rotary phone dial does for today's youth.

Voice recognition technology seems benign, but it is likely to prove transformative. The workplace will go from the clickety-clack of keyboards to the low murmur of people talking to their computers and their computers talking back.

Erik Lucken
Erik Lucken has played many roles in the design industry— from architecture, interiors and strategy to research, marketing and communications. For the last decade he has studied the intersection of business performance and the built environment, and now leverages his unique range of experience to help clients identify workplace design opportunities through unconventional insights into people, place, policy and process. Contact him at erik_lucken@gensler.com.

Reader Comments (2)

I am newly the owner of an iPhone 4S (the first iPhone I've ever owned) and I've begun to really appreciate the abilities of Siri. BUT, that said, this is not a replacement for writing. Writers, it has famously been said, write with their hands, not their brains. That may sound weird, but as a longtime author and blogger, I can attest that my written vocabulary and syntax are significantly different from my spoken style. Jackie Collins dictates her novels and has other people type them up, and she is famous for sentence fragments and telegraphed dialogue, not a rich reading experience.
10.28.2011 | Unregistered CommenterCristian Asher
While I'm referencing the potential of technology in less sophisticated realms than the creation of literature, even there I question whether the pen will ultimately prove more powerful than the voice. Your quote is a good one, but it was also used to argue that the typewriter could never replace the pen and then later that the computer keyboard would just do further damage. Very similar words to your criticism of Jackie Collins' sentence fragments and telegraphed dialogue were leveled against Nietzshe in the late 1800's when he transitioned from pen to the typewriter. While there may be magic in a feather quill and ink, I doubt there's much in QWERTY.

There is also a critical difference between dictation and voice recognition. Voice recognition allows seeing your spoken words form on the screen as you say them. The visual association between the thought and the physicality of the word remains intact. Interface no doubt changes content—were we all to write in ink pen our books would be very different. But in this evolution the true game changer was word processing programs and the ability to effortlessly edit in real time what once would have involved countless redlines. Voice recognition is merely a tweak on that paradigm and by offering a more fluid entry point, may prove to elevate literature rather than detract from it.
11.9.2011 | Unregistered CommenterErik Lucken

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