Since I was a kid, I loved science fiction cartoons. Back in the ‘80s the options were quite limited and the ones that dared to tread into the sci-fi realm would stand out. One of them was “Ulysses 31”, a French-Japanese animated television series (1981) that updates the Greek mythology of Odysseus (known as “Ulysses” in Latin) to the 31st century.
The spaceship’s super intelligent computer, named “Calypso” was the epicenter of my imagination’s wildest dreams and fueled dozens of hours of me driving and commanding that spaceship, by pressing a few buttons, moving some levers (typical setup in futuristic movies of the 70s and 80s) but more importantly through verbal interaction with “her”: Calypso: just one of a series of similar-themed computers I came across in my (fictional) life with a warm, trusty and soothing voice, next to other computers such as SAL 9000 (a feminine version of the HAL 9000 of 2001: a space odyssey), Red Queen (the AI from the movie Resident Evil), etc.
We stand at the verge of a massive evolution in how we relate to computers. Over the past decades, we have been on a journey that has made our modes of interaction quite simpler: from time cards to keyboards, and from trackballs and mouse to touch screens. Each step has made engagement with technology easier and more natural, leading us to the ultimate definition of simplicity (and minimalism?): the voice.
Each step has made engagement with technology easier and more natural, leading us to the ultimate definition of simplicity: the voice.
Advances in speech recognition (identifying the words spoken and converting them to text) and natural language processing or NLP (understanding the intent behind the words) have made voice a viable consumer proposition. Speech recognition error rates are now at human parity at 5%. Incredible isn’t it? And with the advancement of machine learning (bearing in mind that tech giants keep pouring money in that direction and a plethora of data oceans opens for exploration) we should expect further improvements.
Here is an example of how our everyday life could look like
6:30am. Alarm goes off: I have to wake up. It’s too dark outside…(It always is!) Lights are dimmed..the memories of playing around, half yawning and blindly, trying to find switches are long gone, since instead of trying blindly to reach out for the switch, hoping that all remote controls are in one place, ipads and iphones charged and strategically positioned in the house so that I have all the information you need at the tip of my fingers, instead I … simply talk to my “digital friend”, my “digital assistant”, my digital “butler”.
His or her name can be Alexa, Cortana, Yanis or Nebuchadnezzar for what I care. But for the purpose of this scenario, let’s use my childhood space mother-figure Calypso, and let’s kill my natural tendency of using polysyllabic words: so let’s call her “Caly”.
-”Caly, what’s the temperature in the house?”
– “Good morning Niko (she knows what time it is and she knows I did not speak to “her” for the last 8 hours, so she is smart enough to give me a positive nudge with our first interaction and remind me some etiquette) the temperature in the house is 18 degrees Celsius”
Ohhh…quite cold for me. Not sure how did this happen. “Caly, can you increase the temperature to 21 degrees please (etiquette nudge worked) within the next 15 min and keep it there until everyone is out of the house?”
“Most certainly” (says Caly) and takes action, without me having to worry about it.
“Caly what’s the weather forecast for the next 1 hour?”
“Weather forecast indicates 14 degrees and 30% probability of rain”
Ok, I am thinking…I will go for a run then!
Time for breakfast: “Caly can you recommend a quick recipe based on …uhmm…let’s see what I have in the fridge.. Eggs, avocados, salmon, cinnamon (!), cheese, tomatoes, and spinach?”
“Definitely Niko”, responds Caly and gives me an option. Is that the only one? Maybe not…who cares? If I want more options I will tell her I do not like the option she gave me and go after the next one. But the best part is that … I do not have to think about it.
Fast forward: I am driving to the office, and I miss already Caly, but luckily recently I have plugged an add-on in my car, and … I can have Caly there…with her warm voice accompanying me on my trips, taking care of me and safely making my day very productive. She helps me select radio stations, listen to music or audiobooks, read emails on my behalf, make a few phone calls and time flies by so quickly, that I arrive at the office.
Car park…uhhh! The best part of my journey, since I do not need to run around in circles trying to find out an empty slot, by driving aimlessly. I simply ask Caly:
“Caly, identify a free parking slot for me please”.
In the background she connects to the smart building systems, which hold all the necessary real time data, and in a jiff she responds: “Free parking slot identified. Please move to slot B36”.
I am in time; no need to rush so I pour myself a cup of coffee from the coffee machine and casually walk into the meeting room. The powerpoint is fired up, the discussion starts but it’s tricky. I cannot concentrate properly. Is it me feeling hot or is it really hot? I have a look at the thermostat and for some funny reason it shows 26 degrees. (!!!)
The natural instinct in the past was to immediately press the button on the wall thermostat and reduce the temperature..and I want it now! Not tomorrow, not in 30 min,but now! I want comfortable conditions now! But instead, after apologising to my colleagues for this small interruption, I ask the digital “butler” of the building (let’s also call her Caly for consistency reasons):
“Caly, can you please adjust the temperature of this room to 21 degrees Celsius and maintain it at that level?”
“Temperature will be adjusted and maintained to 21 degrees Celsius”, confirms Caly and we all go back to continue our presentation, without time wasted, without the notorious liturgy of sins happening in the background with different people taking the temperature down to 17 degrees to cool the room, and then up to 28 degrees to heat it up quickly since it has cooled down and so (does this remind you something?) leading to energy, carbon and money waste and without us worrying that the room conditions will turn to freezing within the next 30 min.
So how does this all sound?
We are talking about the same set up, almost the same infrastructure but enriched by something that follows and leads human beings for thousands of years… voice, liberating us from the chains of endless and rigorous tasks; tasks that keep busy the best and most productive parts of the human brain, stranding its infinite capabilities.
And why is this so important? For we are hard wired as human beings to communicate verbally. We invite verbal communications, since they imply one thing: trust. And this is a fundamental and undeniable truth that we seem to have forgotten, omitted, obliterated as we were turning our houses into palaces; palaces of complexity… temples of frustration… panthea of averagism.
But it also means an increased likelihood of feeling like “home”. Feeling familiarity with places, security, balance; important archetypes that accompanied humans since the dawn of time. Another step towards creating perfect places?
The tides of voice driven A.I. are already marching aggressively and strike sensitive human cords, opening the doors of confidence and trust, other than opening the doors to our houses, and they do not appeal only to the name of Amazon, but also Google and Apple, Facebook (or GAFA for all of them together.)
Voice driven A.I. means an increased likelihood of feeling like “home”.
And how about companies that lead the way into the creation of perfect places, like Siemens Building Technologies, and its rivals?
Well, as they tread into concepts and services around indoor positioning, and have solutions for the whole spectrum, ranging from micro (pieces of equipment within a building) to macro (security, safety and energy for buildings, industries and cities) and are interconnecting everything with mega-platforms like MindSphere, inclusion of voice capabilities can be a massive differentiator. So far no company has a clear advantage in the buildings industry. Whoever is the first to incorporate it successfully (i.e. comprehensively?) will be able to crack into territories that so far appear more like dark-arts (such as the whole area of well-being).
But this means that inevitably these companies, possibly known for years as technology titans, will have to accelerate their own transformation, becoming recognized more and more about their software capabilities.
The future of cities is interconnected beyond imagination, and the future of buildings is more interconnected than ever before. In an ecosystem (such as a city) that is anthropocentric, we cannot afford any more to disregard the most important way human beings use to communicate: their voice. Voice (through voice enabling software, devices etc) has a big part to play in this interconnected future. And this is a future that is not so far away. Voice control in buildings might be already ante portas.
So, instead of waiting for someone else to open the “portas”, how about we give it a hand, and open them… ourselves?