When a voice is indistinguishably real

When the phone rings these days, the likelihood of hearing a robot on the other end is almost higher than a human voice. Most of the time this voice is still easy to distinguish from a real human, as it is a clichéd machines version of a voice that usually only understands our answers after the third or fourth repetition.

But various companies are working flat out to make robot voices more and more human. This includes, above all, speaking more indistinctly, incorporating more natural cadences and a good measure of “ähs” and “ehms”. But what for?

Of course, there are many advantages to using robot voices in call centre applications. After all, this is the most cost-effective way to discourage customers from using customer service. But jokes aside, there is a huge benefit of employing such voice agents aswell.

Just imagine the possibilities of talking to your computer instead of silently (and slowly) hacking away at your keyboard with the help of [[conversational-interfaces]]

Usage in old people’s homes

But perhaps the voice can be used not only to be our personal assistant, making appointments and booking flights.

One can also imagine this voice being used in places where people are notoriously lonely. Nursing homes and hospices, for example, would be such a place. Our ageing society will most likely need more such facilities in the future. However, the staff that looks after these facilities is becoming fewer and fewer. Robots and machines that can take over these tasks will therefore be an inevitable future. At least according to current data. This is not to say that this in itself is a devlopment I like to see, but the social mobility that is at the center of modern western, eurocentric societies has brought the topic of [[solitude]], especially among the elderly, to the forefront again.

The disembodied voices could not only read stories to the elderly in audio book form, which are always the same, but rather they could hold dynamic conversations. Fed with the right content, they could not only answer general questions, but even family-specific ones. Old people would be able to talk to these disembodied caregivers about their family and their personal life, their personal past.

The question remains whether we want this.

Is it a good idea that we might no longer have to visit our relatives, grandparents, parents, ourselves, because a machine can do it for us, knowing us as well as we know ourselves? Or even better? Will it be the same experience for the person visited to talk to a disembodied care robot? If we answer “yes” to this question, then we are reducing ourselves to the status of a disembodied machine. So this cannot be the answer.

But what is the answer then? It is a strange idea to be in a situation where you are taken to a nursing home by your relatives, who then stay away from you because they no longer want to look after you. And then, two or three times a day, a robot comes rolling in (or runs in quite awkwardly) and talks to you personally in the voice of your favourite relative about topics that the robot will probably never get to know the meaning of.

Yeah, the question remains.