I can’t recall the last time I was so creeped out by a technology as I am by Google Duplex—the AI that can make reservations over the phone by pretending to be a human.
I’m not sure what’s disturbing me more: the technology itself, or the excited reaction of tech bros who can’t wait to try it.
Thing is …when these people talk about being excited to try it, I’m pretty sure they are only thinking of trying it as a caller, not a callee. They aren’t imagining that they could possibly be one of the people on the other end of one of those calls.
The visionaries of technology—Douglas Engelbart, J.C.R Licklider—have always recognised the potential for computers to augment humanity, to be bicycles for the mind. I think they would be horrified to see the increasing trend of using humans to augment computers.
There are no videos from this year’s dConstruct—you kind of had to be there—but Mandy’s talk works astoundingly well as a purely audio experience. In fact, it’s remarkable how powerful many of this year’s talks are as audio pieces. From Warren’s thoughtful opening words to Cory’s fiery closing salvo, these are talks packed so full of ideas that revisiting them really pays off.
Then again, I’m something of a sucker for the spoken word. There’s something about having to use the input from one sensory channel—my ears—to create moving images in my mind, that often results in a more powerful experience than audio and video together.
We often talk about the internet as a revolutionary new medium, and it is. But it is revolutionary in the way that it collapses geographic and temporal distance; we can have instant access to almost any information from almost anywhere in the world. That’s great, but it doesn’t introduce anything fundamentally new to our perception of the world. Instead, the internet accelerates what was already possible.
Even that acceleration is itself part of a longer technological evolution that began with the telegraph—something that Brian drove home in in his talk when he referred to Tom Standage’s excellent book, The Victorian Internet. It’s probably true to say that the telegraph was a more revolutionary technology than the internet.
To find the last technology that may have fundamentally altered how we perceive the world and our place in it, I propose the humble gramophone.
On the face of it, the ability to play back recorded audio doesn’t sound like a particularly startling or world-changing shift in perspective. But as Sarah pointed out in her talk at last year’s dConstruct, the gramophone allowed people to hear, for the first time, the voices of people who aren’t here …including the voices of the dead.
Today we listen to the voices of the dead all the time. We listen to songs being sung by singers long gone. But can you imagine what it must have been like the first time that human beings heard the voices of people who were no longer alive?
There’s something about the power of the human voice—divorced from the moving image—that still gets to me. It’s like slow glass for the soul.
Creating telephone answering systems can be fun as I discovered at History Hack Day when I put together the Huffduffer hotline using the Tropo API. There’s something thrilling about using the human voice as an interface on your loosely joined small pieces. Navigating by literally talking to a machine feels simultaneously retro and sci-fi.
I think there’s a lot of potential for some fun services in this area. What a shame then that the technology has mostly been used for dreary customer service narratives:
Horrific glimpse of a broken future. I sniffed while a voice activated phone menu was being read out and it started from the beginning again.
There’s been a lot of talk lately about injecting personality into web design, often through the tone of voice in the microcopy. When personality is conveyed in the spoken as well as the written word, the effect is even more striking.
What happens when Customer Service bots start getting too smart? What if they start needing help too? How would they use the tools at their disposal to reach out to those they care about? What if they start caring about us a little too much?
It’s using the Voxeo service, which looks similar to Tropo.
The end result is amusing …but also slightly disconcerting. You may find yourself chuckling, but your laughter will be tinged with nervousness.
After seeing (and hearing) what Brian was doing at History Hack Day, I decided I’d have to have a play with Tropo. Like Twilio, it’s a service that allows you to build voice-activated apps that you call up and talk to.
At the most basic level, you can send text-to-voice messages:
But you can also give it audio files to play:
Huffduffer has the locations of thousands of audio files, so I thought a voice interface onto Huffduffer’s collection would be fun.
Call +1 202 600 8751 in the US, +44 2035 142722 in the UK, or use Skype. When the nice digital man on the other end picks up the phone and asks you want you want to hear, you can respond with “what’s new”, “what’s popular”, or say a tag like music, science, history, politics, technology, etc.
The script then fetches the latest files with that tag and will go through them with you one by one, asking “Would you like to hear… ?” followed by the title. If you don’t like the sound of it, just say no. When you find something you do want to hear, say yes. It will then start playing and you will be listening to a podcast down a telephone line.
I call it the Huffduffer Hotline. The code is on Github. If you fancy playing around with the Tropo API and want to use Huffduffer’s links to audio files, go ahead. You should find everything you need through the Huffduffer API.
I’ve finished my little bout of timezone parkour to Nashville and San Francisco. I attended a conference in each place and enjoyed both in very different ways.
Voices That Matter had an eclectic line-up of speakers. Whereas other conferences are organized around a theme or a set of technologies, the only commonality at this conference, organized by New Riders, is that the speakers have all published books through New Riders. While this means that the conference doesn’t have a specific focus, it does offer a nice varied range of subjects. Talks ranged from the specifics of using CSS for colour, typography and layout right through to discussions of user-testing and social networking.
I enjoyed getting the nitty-gritty details of CSS fonts from JasonCranford Teague. He and Richard are clearly kindred spirits. The revelation of the conference for me was hearing a great hands-on presentation from ZoeMickley Gillenwater on liquid and elastic layouts. Okay, so I might be a bit biased but I think it’s great that this subject is getting coverage and Zoe is just the person to do it. She’s currently writing a book for New Riders on this neglected area of web design. It should be out by December. Pre-order it now.
I missed a few talks because I was whisked away to be interviewed for a future video podcast. Under the very professional-looking lights and cameras, I participated in a one-on-chat and also a thoroughly enjoyable discussion with Christopher Schmitt and Steve Krug. I missed more talks because I wanted to get outside the hotel and explore Nashville a bit. The highlight of that exploration was getting a guided tour —thanks to Ari—around the historic Hatch Show Print where they have been making letterpress posters for musicians for over a century; a great place to soak up some design inspiration.
My ulterior motive for escaping from the conference hotel was to seek out a mandolin for myself. I went to the Gibson outlet store at the Opry Mills shopping mall on the outskirts of town but even the cheapest mandolin there was still beyond my price range. They sure were a pleasure to play, though. Fortunately for me, I stumbled across a flea market in the same mall where I happened upon a cheap second-hand epiphone. It’s not brilliant but it’s suitable for my purposes; a decent little instrument that I can take travelling with me. I’ve got a suitable travel bag to go with it. It has the shape of a tennis racket case but all the pockets of a laptop bag. I may even try to pass myself off as some kind of freakish sporty geek hybrid.
All in all, I think I managed to get a good look around Nashville and get plenty out of the conference too. I was only there for a few days before it was time for me to head on to San Francisco for Supernova 2008. That was a different kettle of thought-leading fish.
The Voices That Matter conference just wrapped up here in San Francisco. My talk was the last one of the day apart from a lightning round of two-minute takeaway points from a phalanx of speakers, moderated by myself.
My presentation was entitled Microformats: what are they and why do I care? You can download a PDF of the slides. The presentation is licensed under a Creative Commons attribution license so do with it as you please.
The talk went okay—I have the horrible feeling that there were quite a few “um”s and “ah”s peppered throughout. I made sure to leave plenty of time for questions and, as usual, the questions turned out to be the best part. Tantek took notes of the Q&A and I’ve published them on the wiki page for the event (if you were at the presentation be sure to add yourself to the list of attendees).
When he wasn’t taking notes, Tantek was diligently folding cheat sheets for the attendees. They were popular. If you weren’t lucky enough to get a pre-folded one, you can always print out and fold your own pocket cheat sheet courtesy of Erin.
And now, with my speaking duties fulfilled, I’ve got a day to spend in San Francisco before I head home. I intend to make the most of it. If you’d like to join me in soaking up the last of the California sunshine, come along to the picnic tables in South Park at noon tomorrow (Friday) for a geek picnic. Be there or be even more square.