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Voice Control Absurdities (2019-03-12)

One of Randall Munroe's reflections on voice recognition in technology. One of Randall Munroe's reflections on voice recognition in technology.
Voice Commands, xkcd 1787, january 2017

The idea of controlling any device by talking to it has never impressed me much, it sounds like gilding the lily at best, a disaster waiting to happen at worst. Which is not to say I couldn't see any possible uses for sound controlled devices, it's just that often the uses turned out to be better served by other techniques. Automatic lighting being managed by a sensible combination of timers and/or light sensors for instance, or using motion sensors, all depending on the specifics of the lights and where they are, of course. On the other hand, there is a tremendous area where voice controls makes incredible sense and should be worked on with all due speed and carefully managed to hedge against disaster, and that is in helping people whose ability to use their hands is critically impaired. That doesn't seem to be anywhere near the centre of the heat and light of the current corporate obsession with selling devices that can "listen" for a person's commands. The corporate obsession is of a piece with the corporate obsession with surveillance and control. I am not going to write much about that in this thoughtpiece per se, but on a point raised in an article at recode.net.

Basically, according to Rani Molla, who wrote the article, corporations are hoping to achieve the passivity effect associated with radio. The passivity effect has two aspects, starting from the expectation that we will find it too much work to change the station. Personally, I think that this expectation is based on a bad data set created from cherry picking. In its early corporatizing days, after regulation drove down how many people could legally broadcast on the airwaves, there weren't many stations to listen to, so yes, listeners were stuck. But once there were more stations and radios with dials or knobs to set the stations, radio listening was not quite so passive. Even piss-poor digital tuning hasn't changed that, although the rapidly shrinking selection of radio stations is its own issue. Arguments from on-line streaming today at the other end of the technological extremes don't impress me much because that is quite a small group of people. But then again, as the resurfacing of old articles about Jeff Bezos and his dreams of unlimited monopoly to fatten his bank account ever further remind us, that small group is of special interest. They have money. These big tech corporations want money, otherwise known as profit, and data and surveillance are a means to an end there.

The second passivity effect is that it is hard to consider multiple options when product information is provided verbally, so people are more likely to go with the first suggested option. Molla argues then that the dream here is to take advantage of this very effect via people saying to their listening devices "order me some toilet paper" and accepting whatever the default given by the device's operating system is at that moment, presuming they would never take the time to set their own. Alas, based on the widespread evidence of failure to change default passwords in internet of shit devices, that would probably be a good bet. So if people could be persuaded to do all their shopping from home, then the listening device that can do what you tell it becomes the ultimate wet dream for advertising companies who are involved in developing this sort of technology. After all, they can turn to whatever corporation that makes stuff and have them bid against each other for position in the default product list and secondarily in a short list of products. Sounds great except it works directly against the ways in which shopping has been conflated with socializing, and also with the simple fact that people like to actually examine most of the things they buy.

But now let's try to envision the sort of world that this points to. First of all, a completely surveilled one, because right now these devices are being designed to supposedly only start listening on hearing a trigger word. Clearly that is not a final state the purveyors of these devices actually have in mind, or a "bug" couldn't lead to them listening constantly or at least more often than expected. If the trigger word were the basic idea, then the software would not be set up so that effectively the device is listening all the time, just not capturing and analyzing the sound it picks up. Economically speaking, the implications are almost as interesting as they are disturbing. If we push the notion of default purchases activated by voice commands, where most people are not setting their own defaults either via some level of passivity or the software making it despicably difficult to do, then we get a system that brings together technologies already available. RFID equipped devices report when whatever product runs out, wears out, goes out of warranty, or gets superseded by the latest version. Person decides to purchase a new one and gives an order to their listening, internet connected speaker or whatever. The default item gets ordered. But then again, the person is hardly necessary in this loop once the products are all tagged and reporting on their own to the internet connected device. In which case voice recognition isn't needed for this task at all. It all can just "magically" happen.

Suppose that somebody decides the RFID thing is going too far, and people should have to do the ordering themselves, otherwise it would be harder to get companies that make stuff to compete for the default and short list spots. After all, maybe the person would usually get the four suggestion short list, and the gamble the companies on it make is that those mentioned earlier will get more orders, and in any case they can gamble on a guaranteed twenty-five percent. To me this still sounds like something that would soon develop into a corporate command economy, because it would lend itself to cartels even more than the current economy does. The number of devices would be known, the people who use them would be the ones who have money, and if they aren't going out to shop to any degree, then to that degree they have become a captured market. Well, at least as long as their cash holds out. Limiting options and enforcing passivity may be great for extracting more profit from people buying things, yet it hardly bears any resemblance to a free or fair market even in capitalist terms.

Then again, it all depends on who is supposed to be free and what is defined as the market. If the freedom is supposed to be that of capital and of capitalists to accumulate it, then actually there is nothing to guarantee benefits for everybody else. We have already seen this in the case of the people who work for capitalists. Every form of limit is placed on the movement of people because it helps drive down the "cost of labour," a cost that in late stage capitalism apparently can never go down far enough, except the consensus now is that slavery is cost ineffective unless bankrolled by the state via prison systems. This feeds the drive to automate as well. How this all ties back to voice control and "remote shopping" via telling an internet of shit device to order things for you is whose jobs go missing if nobody leaves the house to shop. The very sorts of jobs vaunted to the sky as the future economy, all those low paid, rarely full time, often precarious "service jobs" in retail that so many of us are being shunted into. Funny that.

Copyright © C. Osborne 2019
Last Modified: Monday, May 29, 2017 2:03:23