WEDNESDAY 5 APR 2023 4:18 PM


Use of AI voice is growing but privacy concerns and limitations to its application mean it may be slower to catch on in the workplace. Rebecca Pardon explores.

AI technology has become so familiar that it no longer seems artificial at all, woven imperceptibly into our day-to-day activities, accessories and interactions. While few would yet count them among their closest friends, smart speakers such as Alexa, Siri and Cortana have become as common in modern homes as TVs and Peloton bikes, having grown from a sci-fi gimmick to a living room staple in wealthy countries. Big Tech’s foray into our homes does not feel intrusive, but instead is compact-sized and sits neatly on our bookcases.

Programmed to meet all commands with cheery quips and possessing an endearingly docile disposition, smart speakers are unobtrusive, polite houseguests that never over-dominate the conversation or offend the host. Are they as welcome in the workplace?

Voice technology has been slower to catch on at work than in the home. In 2019, technology research group Gartner estimated that by 2023 a quarter of work interactions with software would be mediated by voice. According to Vixen Labs’s ‘The Voice Consumer Index 2022’ report, 13% of people were using smart speakers in the office once a day last year, and 18% were using them at work multiple times a day.

Jennifer Heape, chief commercial officer and co-founder of Vixen Labs, says that many of the meeting rooms, lifts, doors and light fixtures in workplaces are now activated by AI voice. “The deeper integration of voice also appeals to some industries because it’s great for taking away the hassle of something, such as trawling through a spreadsheet,” Heape says.

Describing its integration as ‘seamless’, Heape says voice assistant feature found in Mercedes cars is exemplary of the direction in which voice is heading: “The car is a huge growth area for voice, because it’s incredibly dangerous to look at a screen. When you get in, you don’t say ‘hey, Alexa’ or ‘hey, Mercedes’, you just say ‘hey, my car’.” This means AI voice may already be steadily creeping into the work lives of the growing number of employees who do not have an office-based workspace at all, such as lorry drivers and Deliveroo riders.

An increasingly digitalised workplace may strike fear into the hearts of the Zoom-fatigued and anyone who still feels a twinge of terror at the invitation to ‘share your screen.’ Heape, however, says voice can liberate us from the bookcase-adorned boxroom corners that have been elected as our Zoom backgrounds. “AI voice is helping us to circle back to more of a face-to-face interaction, with fewer screens and more ambient technology,” she says. “Whatever version the Metaverse ends up being, one thing’s for sure is that we’re going to speak to it.”

Yet our needs are more complex in the workplace than at home. Craig Holland was working in infrastructure and security at Condé Nast in 2019, when the company decided to trial Alexa for Business in their New York offices. Once speakers were plugged into conference rooms and installed with specific software, Holland recalls how many people just didn’t have the patience to get to grips with the devices: “In the workplace, these things have got to work perfectly, immediately.”

Most at Condé Nast found the devices to be a domineering nuisance, often unable to distinguish between Zoom meetings that needed to be booted up or shut down and ending multiple meetings by mistake. They also proved to be a headache in an already noisy office environment.

“People thought it was creepy having a microphone in the room. When you’re working on something high-profile or confidential, you don't want any potential leaks,” Holland says. The speakers only lasted about four months. “They ended up just hanging off the walls. People were unplugging them because they didn't want the microphones active.”

The unreliable ‘wake word’ has shown smart speakers to be notoriously light sleepers: according to a study by researchers at Northeastern University last year, smart speakers can be mistakenly activated up to 19 times a day. In some cases, the speakers were eavesdropping for as long as 43 seconds. Steve Keller, director at SiriusXM Media, fears smart speakers have too much access to our private lives: “I am concerned about big companies being able to collect data, and how much they can use. We need to be aware that whenever we use technology, these data points are being gathered.”

However, according to Vixen Labs’ report, 38% of people were using voice assistants at home at least once a day in 2022, with 28% using them multiple times a day; at least one in three people were using voice technology on their smartphone to find out information. The profusion of voice technology in the home implies that people will tolerate smart speakers’ snooping so long as they find them useful, which means a smarter smart speaker may be joining you at the office yet. In the hybrid world of work, of course, this distinction is becoming less clear.   

And how can Alexa become more useful in the workplace? By listening more, Holland says. “What Alexa for Business lacked was an understanding of the subtle contextual nature of human interaction,” he explains. “In order to achieve this, you need to open the speakers up to an open field, enabling them to listen to everything that is going on, across boundaries and different contexts.”

But what, or whom, are we opening-up to when we ask our speakers to accurately gauge next week’s weather, to order our groceries, or to explain why the sky is blue to our children when we are pressed for time? “Algorithms are feeding a huge identity database that is being established, allowing companies access to our personalities, our moods, our psychology - and algorithms are now impacting our behaviour,” says Keller. “We need to be aware of the extent to which big companies are profiling us as individuals.”

Heape finds it concerning that virtual assistants are considered the biggest privacy threat when, in reality, Big Tech has been in our homes and back-pockets for years. “People get distracted by voice technology when, really, they should apply a healthy level of scepticism to the whole digital ecosystem. But if all you're worried about is the next device in your room, you have completely missed the point of how your digital data is being used.

“If you're worried about being tracked and listened to, you should be more worried about apps on your phone, anything you type into Google. You are being tracked everywhere,” she says. “When it comes to voice and smart speakers, there is not a mythical land where millions of employees sit listening to recordings of you cooking dinner.”