Voice Assistants


73346694In shopping malls and airports, there has been a trend towards expensive touch screen computer assistants – what I’m calling a MallBot – and away from printed leaflets with maps. It’s highly likely you’ve encountered one of these robots somewhere near you, and your experience with them may have been good, bad, or indifferent (please let me know which!). If you are the kind of person who hates to talk to another living being in person, the MallBot offers you a convenient escape from human interaction… it’s not entirely likely this is a good situation from any perspective other than indulging your desire to avoid your anxieties, which does nothing to help alleviate them in the long term.

At their best, the MallBot offers a simple search for the stores in the shopping mall either by name or by subject, and then displays the location on a map. But that is often where the trouble starts. In the worst designs I have encountered, the MallBot attempts to direct you to the store by providing directions… but these are not the directions of an intelligent being like a human that can construct a set of instructions suited to our way of thinking. You will get no “walk this way until you see the fountain, then turn left.” Rather, you will be shown a stream of incomprehensible images intended to capture the steps required to reach your destination. Clearly these made sense to someone in the robot’s design team… but they mean nothing to the majority of humans who engage with it.

Before the MallBot, the standard solutions were a fixed installation with a printed map or a leaflet containing a map with an overlaid grid, and a directory of stores with the grid reference. If you can use a map, you can deploy either of these methods to find what you are looking for. It lacks the option to search, although pragmatically you can scan a list of shops faster than you can operate a touch screen search. It cannot be updated as easily as the digital version, but this is hardly a matter of virtue.

The difference between these two situations is that the leaflet or static map requires you to exercise your own competences while the MallBot attempts to do everything for you. That a rather worrying number of MallBot designs fail at giving directions is a sign of bad design, but it is not a cyber-debility unless we count the capacity for this situation to enrage you. But the humble leaflet is cybervirtuous in so much that encourages you to navigate, builds your own knowledge of the layout, and trusts in your skill and autonomy as more than enough to solve the problem facing you. It offers a cyber-capable arrangement. I rather suspect the leaflet is also cheaper to provide than the robot. The sole advantage of the MallBot is that it feels futuristic… but I worry about that vision of the future.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #2


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