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He sums up the biggest obstacle to Alexa achieving that sophistication in a single word: context.

Alexa needs to get better at grasping context before she can truly inspire trust. And trust matters. Not just because consumers will give up on her if she bungles one too many requests, but because she is more than a search engine. She chooses one answer from many. She tells you what she thinks you want to know. T o understand the forces being marshaled to pull us away from screens and push us toward voices, you have to know something about the psychology of the voice. For one thing, voices create intimacy. Many articles have been written about the expressions of depression and suicide threats that manufacturers have been picking up on.

I asked tech executives about this, and they said they try to deal with such statements responsibly.

1. When the other side in a negotiation starts debating against itself.

There are people who can help you. You could try talking with a friend, or your doctor. You can also reach out to the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance at for more resources. Why would we turn to computers for solace? Machines give us a way to reveal shameful feelings without feeling shame. I turned to Diana Van Lancker Sidtis, a speech-and-language scholar at NYU, to get a better appreciation for the deep connection between voice and emotion. In it, she explains that their croaks, unique to each frog, communicated to fellow frogs who and where they were.

Fast-forward a few hundred million years, and the human vocal apparatus, with its more complex musculature, produces language, not croaks. But voices convey more than language. Like the frogs, they convey the identifying markers of an individual: gender, size, stress level, and so on. Our vocal signatures consist of not only our style of stringing words together but also the sonic marinade in which those words steep, a rich medley of tone, rhythm, pitch, resonance, pronunciation, and many other features.

The technical term for this collection of traits is prosody. When someone talks to us, we hear the words, the syntax, and the prosody all at once. The prosody usually passes beneath notice, like a mighty current directing us toward a particular emotional response. Evolution has not prepared me to know.

In fact, it may be a boon. Voices can express certain emotional truths better than faces can. Even if we try to suppress our real feelings, anger, boredom, or anxiety will often reveal themselves when we speak. In the beginning was the Word, not the Scroll.

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Disembodied voices accrue yet more influence from the primal yearning they awaken. Freud understood this long before empirical research demonstrated it.

He could listen all the harder for the nuggets of truth in their ramblings, while they, undistracted by scowls or smiles, slipped into that twilight state in which they could unburden themselves of stifled feelings. T he manufacturers of smart speakers would like to capitalize on these psychosocial effects.


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In part, this is textbook brand management: These devices must be ambassadors for their makers. But having a personality also helps make a voice relatable. Tone is tricky. Twenty-first-century Americans no longer feel entirely comfortable with feminine obsequiousness , however. We like our servility to come in less servile flavors. The voice should be friendly but not too friendly. It should possess just the right dose of sass. She beamed in on Google Hangouts and offered what struck me as the No.

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If you propose marriage to Alexa—and Amazon says 1 million people did so in —she gently declines for similar reasons. Giangola is a garrulous man with wavy hair and more than a touch of mad scientist about him. His job is making the Assistant sound normal. For example, Giangola told me, people tend to furnish new information at the end of a sentence, rather than at the beginning or middle. Say someone wants to book a flight for June Typing furiously on his computer, he pulled up a test recording to illustrate his point.


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Her point—30 days—comes at the end of the line. And she throws in an actually , which gently sets up the correction to come. Bots also need a good vibe. When Giangola was training the actress whose voice was recorded for Google Assistant, he gave her a backstory to help her produce the exact degree of upbeat geekiness he wanted. The backstory is charmingly specific: She comes from Colorado, a state in a region that lacks a distinctive accent. There you go. But vocal realism can be taken further than people are accustomed to, and that can cause trouble—at least for now.

In May, at its annual developer conference, Google unveiled Duplex, which uses cutting-edge speech-synthesis technology. To demonstrate its achievement, the company played recordings of Duplex calling up unsuspecting human beings. Using a female voice, it booked an appointment at a hair salon; using a male voice, it asked about availabilities at a restaurant. Duplex speaks with remarkably realistic disfluencies— um s and mm-hmm s—and pauses, and neither human receptionist realized that she was talking to an artificial agent.

One of its voices, the female one, spoke with end-of-sentence upticks, also audible in the voice of the young female receptionist who took that call. Many commentators thought Google had made a mistake with its gung ho presentation. Duplex not only violated the dictum that AI should never pretend to be a person; it also appeared to violate our trust.

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Duplex was a fake-out, and an alarmingly effective one. Afterward, Google clarified that Duplex would always identify itself to callers. But even if Google keeps its word, equally deceptive voice technologies are already being developed. Their creators may not be as honorable. The line between artificial voices and real ones is well on its way to disappearing. T he most relatable interlocutor, of course, is the one that can understand the emotions conveyed by your voice, and respond accordingly—in a voice capable of approximating emotional subtlety.

Emotion detection—in faces, bodies, and voices—was pioneered about 20 years ago by an MIT engineering professor named Rosalind Picard, who gave the field its academic name: affective computing. She and her graduate students work on quantifying emotion.

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I can snatch it with a sharp, angry, jerky movement. Appreciating gestures with nuance is important if a machine is to understand the subtle cues human beings give one another. I could be nodding in sunken grief. In , Picard co-founded a start-up, Affectiva, focused on emotion-enabled AI. The company hopes to be among the top players in the automotive market.

Affectiva initially focused on emotion detection through facial expressions, but recently hired a rising star in voice emotion detection, Taniya Mishra. But we betray as much if not more of our feelings through the pitch, volume, and tempo of our speech. Computers can already register those nonverbal qualities. The key is teaching them what we humans intuit naturally: how these vocal features suggest our mood. We moved your item s to Saved for Later. There was a problem with saving your item s for later. You can go to cart and save for later there.

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Pickup not available. So much so that we have taught our brains not to pay much attention. After all, click the mouse, tap the screen, flick the channel and it's on to the next thing. But Dave Gorman thinks it's time to have a closer look, to find out how much nonsense we tacitly accept.