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Always-On Listening Devices:

What They Are and What We

Can Learn From Them

“Always-on” listening devices (such as Alexa) are fascinating examples of the direction new technology is taking and the human element in technology product design. That said, these new technologies have raised some questions and concerns due to the recent Google listening device scandal. In this post, we’re going to address some of these questions and explore what Google’s special case can teach us about innovation in technology.

What are always-on listening devices?

“Always-on listening device” is an umbrella term for a device that responds to voice commands after being activated by a “wake word.” For example, Amazon’s Alexa listening device “wakes up” to the word “Alexa,” as does the Google listening device to its wake word, “OK Google.”

Designing a product like this to respond to human speech is a great advancement in technology product design. And it is easy to imagine the convenience these devices can provide. Imagine all the things you could do more efficiently with hands-free access to a smart device.



Where is the “human element” here?



As we all know from experience, computers don’t think like people. Google is very good at knowing what you want when you type in the search engine, but it isn’t perfect. That’s why tech companies need human employees.

Anyone learning a new language can attest to the fact that the spoken word is much more nuanced than the written word. Slang, tone variations, and regional accents are just a few of the reasons that humans are necessary to help Alexa and Google listening devices correctly decipher spoken commands in English alone. Imagine encountering similar complications and variations from the many languages spoken where these always-on listening devices are purchased around the world.

Of course, a large team of people is necessary to take on a project of that scale. They provide valuable feedback so that these listening programs can better identify the words and sentences of humans, who don’t communicate in the same way that computers do.

What caused all the fuss?

Google’s recent blogpost explains that professional language experts listen to a selected sample—approximately 0.2%—of recordings to help make sure that these always-on listening devices are interpreting human speech correctly. The reason all of this is in the news is that one of these language experts violated Google’s privacy policies, leaking information from the recordings.

Is it time to panic?

No. Definitely not. A fear-based response is never the answer in technology product design. This is an opportunity to learn and move forward. Keep reading, and let’s explore some positive take-aways from this case.



Take-away #1: The human element is vital.

We often tend to focus on hardware and software in technology product design. And rightfully so; serious craftsmanship goes into creating the things that help us live and work. But even in spite of this unfortunate episode, Google stands by its choice to include language experts in its product design to make sure its devices effectively interpret human consumers’ needs and wants.

In this Information Age, we need human services and knowledge, and we can never underestimate the power of the human element to make or break a technology product design.

And let’s not forget that the crucial human element in this scenario was not expertise in any of the fields we would typically associate with technology product design. These are linguists, not computer experts or engineers. And Google recognizes the importance of these experts as part of its product design.



Take-away #2: There are always new opportunities to innovate.

Google (and Amazon—though they aren’t the focus of this article) are certainly giants in the world of technology product design. But there is room for improvement even in their designs. As technologically advanced and connected as our society has become, inventors and tech entrepreneurs have every reason to persevere and provide unique solutions.

Technology product design is changing at a rapid pace, just like the world around us. That’s why we need people with new ideas who can learn from negative situations like this for positive future outcomes.

Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for our next blog post on an upcoming webinar with Speed Bancroft.

If you have an idea for a technology product design, CONTACT OUR EXPERTS! We look forward to learning about your idea and getting it to the market.


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