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Alexa: Why Can't Higher Education Have Nice Things?

Thoughts on voice-based, virtual assistants

September 5, 2018
 
 

First of all, full disclosure...I don't have an Amazon Echo*, Google Home, or Apple HomePod. I've never tried out a Google Home. The HomePod seems like a great speaker, but I can't stand Apple's Siri** (it's just awful). Although, Alexa on an Amazon Echo does work well as a music player.

Okay, now that there's been some quick context-setting regarding my own experience with this tech, here's the crux of this post:

It seems that higher education is currently fascinated with voice-based, virtual assistants (especially Amazon Alexa). And, as with almost every relatively new technology used by universities, pundits have come out in droves to opine about these virtual assistants.

Each time I share something on social media about Alexa in particular, the post generally gets a lot of attention:

 

 

Voice-based, virtual assistants can be useful. Recently, Leeds Beckett University used an Alexa app for student recruitment purposes. And, Northeastern University has conducted a pilot study with students who used an Alexa-based app "designed to improve students’ experience by alleviating their cognitive load."

 

 

Now I could write about chatbots (a segment of AI), but I've already done that in a previous post. And, this space is shifting/evolving so quickly that this post could drift into a state of 'always being edited.' So for now, I'll stick to the voice-based, virtual assistant side of things.

It seems to me that the current state of voice-based, virtual assistants breaks down into three distinct areas: Privacy vs Experimentation, Corporate Interests, and the Ubiquity of Future Functionality:

Privacy, "Big Brother," and Experimentation

Having devices that are always on and listening for a command word can be a bit disconcerting. It feels like our normal day-to-day privacy will somehow be compromised. Is a company recording all of your conversations? Can my neighbour activate my virtual assistant if my windows are open? I get it. This technology reeks of potential privacy violations. And, because it's voice-based, it somehow seems more intimate than other forms of tech with which we interact.

However, I think it's not actually a privacy issue in the traditional sense. Alexa doesn't seem to be an insidious operator like Big Brother. Gasp! If I order a hardcover copy of 1984, the thought police aren't going to knock down my front door.

Privacy concerns regarding new'ish technologies always feel more like knee-jerk reactions. It's more of a perceived threat by possibility rather than actual issue.

What seems to be the real victim by way of "it's a privacy issue" rhetoric is that it stomps out any sense of experimentation with this technology. It reminds me of the old days of social media when people would reference FERPA (or some other policy/regulation/etc.) as a reason for not using Facebook, Twitter, electricity, etc.

Plus, those institutions that do try to use voice-based technologies are often called out for only using this tech as a PR move. I mean, can't it be both? Cool tools that are newsworthy doesn't mean they're not innovative and worthwhile.

Maybe technologies like Alexa are still a bit of new tech trying to find their way. Isn't that the way with most technologies? At first they might not fit into our preconceived notions of utility, functionality, purpose, etc. and that's okay.

I asked for some thoughts on voice-based, virtual assistants from the Twittersphere and it was mixed bag of opinions/questions:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Connections to Capitalism

It should be noted that I do have an issue with voice-based, virtual assistants. The big three (Google, Amazon, and Apple) are only interested in making money off of all of us. Capitalism creates a lens that limits our thinking on what things can become because we only think in terms of money, advertising, big data, and selling...or reacting in opposition to those current life facets.

However, being an uber, critically hopeful nerd, I'm hoping for a future of technologies that are not connected to large corporations and their extremely limited view on how tech can benefit humanity.

Ubiquitous Functionality and Future

The future of voice-based, virtual assistants seems to be an ever-increasing amount of functionality, devices, and depth. Artificial intelligence (AI) or some form of 'smart machine learning' is coming (and yes, I know that some people like to label their stuff as AI or machine learning, but it's nowhere near as advanced as anyone would like).

It's important to mention that accessibility matters. As voice-based, virtual assistants continue to evolve (and learn?), it's important to think about how access is enhanced (or decreased) by way of these technologies. If you cannot speak or hear, technologies that sync up with AI still need to be able to function.

Alexa (or whatever tech comes after the Echo...or even Amazon) are fast-becoming ubiquitous. When you watch The Great British Bake Off and each commercial break features an Alexa ad, and people are tweeting how it has activated their Echos, you know it's a big deal. (I miss Mel and Sue so much!)

We seem to be like cave people at this point when it comes to voice-based technologies. We're drawing on cave walls with sticks. These are early days and we're still trying to work out how to make voice-based, virtual assistant 'fire.'

*Update: I actually purchased an Amazon Echo whilst writing this post. Alexa works so much better than Siri, but I really would like a robust web search. And, I'm literally a newbie when comes to the Echo so I look forward to adding new flash briefings to my account. First up, the Helix Education enrollment growth briefing:

 

 

**Update 2: The Amazon Echo was purchased because Apple's Siri is just unbelievably bad. How's that for a product review... Apple, what the heck?!? Seriously, I cannot understand how you haven't made Siri better.

 

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