Artificial Intelligence
Amazon Echo smart speaker

The 2010s: The decade technology learned to talk

Science fiction, talking with a computer, came true. But will we still want to chat with our tech in the 2020s?

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You could argue that computers began talking long before this decade. Indeed, the Apple Macintosh spoke aloud to introduce itself on stage back in 1984, and many school IT lessons during the 1990s were wasted making Microsoft Sam say something inappropriate. But, while science fiction and Hollywood romped ahead with the intelligent, talking computers of "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "Iron Man," the consumer missed out for quite awhile —until this last decade.

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The dawn of Siri

Certainly voice systems in cars chatted to us, but these offered only very basic functionality, like making hands-free calls. Plus they often worked poorly. Add this to the robotic voices

of primitive navigation systems, and the idea of holding conversations with computers seemed distant.

However, as the 2010s began, and consumers were struggling with finding voice technology useful, Silicon Valley was already working on a solution. Voice actor Susan Bennett, in 2005, was hired to record hours of words and phrases for a voice technology company called ScanSoft. Unaware of what her recordings would be used for, Bennett collected her pay-check and moved onto the next gig.

ScanSoft then acquired a fellow voice technology company called Nuance and took over its name. This version of Nuance, along with a Norwegian startup called Siri, then helped with the development of Apple's voice assistant of the same name. Bennet's recordings for Siri's first voice greeted the world at the iPhone 4S launch in the fall of 2011.

Siri, which had impressed Steve Jobs during his final days in the Apple office, was met with the usual applause at the launch. But Twitter quickly filled up with comments of how Siri reminded iPhone buyers of the HAL 9000 computer from "2001: A Space Odyssey," and Skynet from the "Terminator" movies.

Siri on the iPhone 4SSiri debuted on the iPhone 4S in 2011 Getty Images

Then the iPhone 4S went on sale, and websites mocking Apple's voice assistant — like s** — sprung up, however the new tool's potential was obvious. From placing hands-free calls and sending dictated messages, to issuing reminders, reading out weather forecasts, setting cooking timers — and, yes, telling jokes — Siri had a broad set of features from day one. Fears of it being creepy quickly subsided.

Apple enjoyed the nascent voice assistant market to itself for a couple of years, even with Google and its tool Google Now available which could be spoken to — and return information — but could not speak. The first real rival to Siri? That was Amazon Alexa, announced alongside the Echo smart speaker, arguably the first smart speaker, in November 2014.

Amazon Echo - Black (1st Generation)

Alexa muscles in

With limited availability at launch, the Echo range soon expanded internationally and grew into a multi-product lineup, with every device featuring the same cloud-based Alexa assistant.

At first, Alexa was broadly the same as Siri, answering general knowledge questions and performing simple tasks. But Amazon's more open approach quickly saw Alexa integrate itself with a huge range of online services through the Skills platform. As the App Store had for the iPhone in 2009, this lit a rocket under Alexa and quickly propelled the assistant ahead of Siri.

Amazon then capitalized on growing interest in the smart home sector, turning Alexa into a voice butler for your home, switching lights on, adjusting the thermostat, locking doors and making the user feel like Tony Stark controlling his JARVIS computer in the Iron Man movies. The voice assistant had its 'aha' moment, and the stuff of Hollywood dreams finally landed in our homes.

Iron ManVoice assistants gave consumers the Iron Man experience Getty Images

Where Siri remained a little-used feature of the iPhone, Alexa was the centerpiece of Amazon's Echo device portfolio. You could plausibly use an iPhone to its full potential without ever engaging with Siri. But the entire point of an Echo speaker is to control it (and thousands of other smart home devices) by having a quick chat with Alexa. This difference is key, and quickly introduced consumers to the concept of 'ambient computing', where always-listening products can be controlled with your voice. No need to open an app or touch a button. Just speak, and the faithful butler will do as you ask.

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Here comes Google Assistant

Not wanting to miss out, Google announced the Assistant and the Home smart speaker in 2016. Although similar to Alexa and the Echo, the Assistant's not-so-secret weapon was its access to Google's search tools. This meant Google Assistant could deliver better answers to general knowledge questions, and it could learn more quickly thanks to Google's vast artificial intelligence abilities.

Although increasingly intelligent and useful, another side of these voice assistant began to emerge: how they might affect us on a psychological level. A study published in April 2017 by Mindshare, a British media and marketing company, questioned voice assistant users about their feelings towards the technology.

Apart from being used to answer questions, play music and dim the lights, the study found "a deeper emotional attachment [between user and AI] is starting to develop." It added: "Over a third (37 percent) of regular voice technology users say that they love their voice assistant so much that they wish it were a real person."

Identifying computerized voice assistants like Alexa and Siri with human-like characteristics chimes, the study said, with 70 percent of survey respondents who said they "want to feel like I'm talking to a real human"

Amazon Echo Dot with clockAlexa features on every Amazon Echo deviceAmazon

As well as "Black Mirror," which featured an evil smart speaker in a summer 2019 episode, the findings of that 2017 study hark back to "Her," the 2013 movie about an introverted writer who falls in love with a talking artificial intelligence.

Voice assistants, or their companies, slip up

Other dangers arrived in the fourth quarter of the decade, too, as time and again, voice assistants made mistakes. An Alexa thought it heard a command to play music loudly one night while its owner was out, causing noise complaints from neighbors. That led to the police kicking the door down, only to find an Echo speaker DJing a party for itself.

More shockingly, a faulty Google Home Mini was caught listening almost constantly in its user's bathroom, and another Amazon Echo product mistakenly recorded a couple's private conversation, then sent it to someone in their address book.

These can be explained away as faults with the system, glitches in the matrix. But over the summer of 2019, Silicon Valley reminded us of its darker side. One by one, Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook and Microsoft were all found to (then admitted to) employing staff to listen to some recordings made by their AI voice assistants.

This snooping was to help understand why the assistants made mistakes, they all said, and to make the technology work better. But in a world where rumors that smartphones listen to offline conversations to sell you Facebook ads abound, it was a bitter pill for consumers to swallow, reminding them that an always-on, internet-connected microphone sits in your home — and you tell it everything.

Echo Show 5 - Compact smart display with Alexa - Charcoal

We'll make it better

Amazon, trying to make Alexa seem more helpful, filed a patent for a system in March 2017 where Alexa can spot signs of illness based on how you sound. But more than noticing a sore throat, the patent suggests Alexa could one day understand the "physical and emotional characteristics of users." On a related note, Amazon announced in 2019 how it has taught Alexa to sound excited or disappointed, potentially in a bid to express empathy towards its owner.

Google also pressed to improve the Assistant and more it more human, but that also caused discomfort as the decade grew to a close, particularly with a feature called Duplex, which sounds remarkably like a human, right down to its use of 'erm' and 'err.'

Designed to call up and make restaurant or hair salon reservations on your behalf, speaking to booking staff with the eloquence of a human, Google says the system will always declare itself as AI when the call is answered. The very fact an AI has to reveal it is human, to other humans, is surely already enough to raise an eyebrow or two. Despite an initial splash, Google hasn't said much about Duplex for a few months now, but we expect to see (and hear) plenty more from human-like AI in the coming decade.

Photo showing how Google Duplex AI makes phone callsDuplex can make phone calls on your behalf Google

As 2020 dawns, we expect it will be a decade where AI gets smarter, and sounds more lifelike than ever. Technology companies will have to navigate the 'uncanny valley,' where the likability of an artificial intelligence actually falls the more lifelike it gets, but then rebounds as its abilities grow indistinguishable from a real person.

Until we get to the other side of the valley, technology companies will face an uphill struggle to convince us that the creepy, almost-human-sounding technology is a force for good, not evil.

Hollywood technology like Iron Man's JARVIS became reality in the 2010s, and we welcomed it into our homes with open arms. Now we have the 2020s to work out if that's what we really wanted, or if we'd rather have a silent smart home that works things out for itself.

Check out The GearBrain, our smart home compatibility checker to see the other compatible products that work with Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa enabled devices.

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All-new Echo (3rd Gen) - Smart speaker with Alexa - Twilight Blue

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