07 Nov 2014

Is this a gimmick or a messenger from the future?

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What is Amazon's Echo. Is it a consumer gimmick or does it herald an important step in the evolution of the user interface?

Just like the rest of the rest of the technical press, we're not sure what to make of this. It's Amazon's new Echo, er, thing. I've asked around RedShark's writers and some of us think it is a significant milestone for, um, something; and others think it will end up in the same warehouse as all those Amazon Phones.

Personally, I think we are seeing something important here. I've ordered one (or, more accurately, asked for an "invitation" to buy one).

Why is this important, and not merely Amazon's version of Siri, on a stick?

Breaktrough voice recognition

Well, on the face of it, that's exactly what it is. The video below doesn't suggest it has any magic beyond what Apple, Google or Microsoft has already on offer.

But the intriguing question is: why has Amazon gone for this form factor, and (a supplementary question): do they have bigger plans for this listening post or is it merely a way for people to add things to their shopping list just by talking?

If it's the latter, and people get into the habit of it, then Amazon will be happy. It's just another convenient way to get stuff ordered. That's their raison d'être, to a large extent.

The first visible sign?

But I suspect that it's the first visible sign of a much bigger plan, which is to move beyond the on-screen (touch or otherwise) user inteface, and to build an "invisible" computer.

The concept of invisibility here is important, because it signals that a technology has become a totally accepted part of someone's life. Just like electricity. When you turn the light on, you don't wonder where the power is coming from (you could, but you don't, usually): you just see stuff you couldn't see before. Water comes out of the tap, but you totally expect it to. What you don't do (but perhaps you should do) is turn it on and, while you're doing it, wonder how full the river is.

Our basic utilities (soon to include internet access) are invisible because we just assume them.

So, this is, perhaps, what Echo is. It's the first move towards invisibility, and therefore ubiquity, for voice-controlled computing. No need for a screen: that's the whole point of talking.

It remains to be seen how advanced the voice recognition is, and how good it is at responding, but, importantly, the Echo has no less than seven microphones. It's probably the first device designed to allow you to talk to it in a normal voice from anywhere in the room, instead of speaking "into" it.

Here's why this might be so important. Think about Star Trek. Think about 2001. Think about... almost every science fiction film or novel. Approximately none of them based in the mid or far future involved talking to computers with keyboards.

Always ready, connected and fast. Just ask

Of course, we've been through all of this before: voice recognition isn't as good as it could be. But I believe it is nearly there. We're about to pass some important milestones.

First, computers are getting better at understanding words and not just recognising them. This is significant. Because understanding is on the road to thinking.

Next, computers are getting better at problem solving. IBM's Watson has won a TV panel game, against human competitors. It did this by "interpreting" the questions and looking for matching patterns (ie answers) in the thousands of books it had "read".

Now IBM has spun off the essence of Watson into multiple cloud instances that anyone (who pays) can use.

IBM isn't giving their secrets away, it's just letting people use the results.

Deep insight

It won't be long before you can pose deep questions to devices like Echo and get deep insight in return.

We already know that Google is investing heavily in machine intelligence - Raymond Kurzweil is now working for them.

 

Always getting smarter

It would be amazing if Amazon isn't looking into this as well.

One thing we can safely assume: Apple, Google and Amazon are working on the interface-free user interface, or at least the next generation of how we interact with computers (or, probably, how they interact with us).

That's why Facebook bought Oculus Rift - a Virtual Reality company.

Given the exponential nature of technological progress, it's not a probability that user interfaces in ten years time will effectively disappear (even for video editing!): it's a certainty.

 


David Shapton

David is the Editor In Chief of RedShark Publications. He's been a professional columnist and author since 1998, when he started writing for the European Music Technology magazine Sound on Sound. David has worked with professional digital audio and video for the last 25 years.

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