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How Technology Fails My Grand Nannie
February 1, 2010 - 9:43pm

Grand Nannie is 92. She wants to be able to speak to her computer to have it do three things:

1) Transfer her paper rolodex into the computer (by speaking) and then be able to retrieve the names (by voice) so she can dictate a letter.

2) Dictate letters.

3) Look at the news.

Yes, I know that speech recognition programs like Dragon NaturallySpeaking can accomplish these tasks. But the problem is that even the best speech-to-text programs require an ability to navigate a computer operating system, open applications, and train the system.

What Grand Nannie needs is a simple box with a screen that contains an OS totally devoted to working by simple voice-commands. This system would do far few operations, but would be able to complete these operations without any computer knowledge or the need to master any computer skills. The system would be able to record contact, transcribe letters, and navigate to a set number of Web sites.

This week I'll have the depressing task of breaking the news to Grand Nannie that she can't do what she wants to do. I'll have to tell her that the technology does not yet exist to allow her to use a computer with her voice. And I feel terrible about this.

What other people are we failing with our technology? I've got to believe that the Microsoft's and the Apple's and the IBM's of the world are missing a huge opportunity in not building devices to serve consumers like Grand Nannie. I think that the technology pieces should all be in place. We are talking about a simple device. What is lacking is an understanding of the needs people who are not young, agile and techno-savvy (although, of course many elderly are as techno-literate as many teenagers).

The fact that Grand Nannie does not have a computer that can work for her also means that she is closed out of the expanding universe of materials for lifelong learners. You could imagine a computer that would allow her to say, "show me a lecture on particle physics" - and the computer would give her options to choose (by voice) across a range of colleges and professors.

Does anyone know of a device of bundled hardware / software that would meet the requirements of my grandmother? How would you get close to this idea with the hardware and software available today? Why has this device not been manufactured? Are the barriers we are running up against technical or cultural?



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