It used to be the dream of science fiction. Remember Captain Kirk interacting with the Star Trek computer by just speaking to it. Voice controlled. Now we have all the voice assistants we could want with Siri, Cortana and Alexa. At the moment the interface with them can be a bit difficult but with some clever tinkering, you can at least ask some questions, crack some jokes and get a book delivered. AI engines (or, better, natural language processers) can now even make phone calls using voice – even adapting times, adding subvocal agreement, and making decisions. It’s an impressive process.
Last year, the Church of England created a new Alexa App to act as an interface between the services it provides and people with Amazon Echo devices. As the Church of England website puts it: “Our Alexa skill enables millions of users to ask the Church of England for prayers, explanations of the Christian faith, location-based information about local church events and services and more.” So, you can be sat at the dining table and ask Alexa to say a grace, or ask where the nearest church is, or ask about prayer. It’s an excellent skill and 75,000 questions were asked of Alexa in the first year, mostly about exploring the Christian faith.
James Poulter (JP) is CEO at Vixen Labs a VoiceFirst consultancy, co-presenter of Christians in Media's Signal Podcast, and frequent speaker at Premier’s Digital Media Conference. Indeed, JP will be doing a session at this year’s conference on Voice 101 – have you booked your ticket yet? In a recent podcast for InsideVoice, James explores his own passion for #voicefirst technology and traces this back to his work on social media innovation at Lego, as well as his own insights from his experience of raising a family. Voice is the primary interface between human beings.In a way screens are really good at interrupting this interface – we get distracted by screens. However, voice engagement is a natural way to link up and communicate.
JP said: With now over one and four homes in the UK having some kind of voice assistant device in the home, it is becoming more and more crucial that churches and organisations take advantage of this new way that parishioners, seekers and regular churchgoers will look for information about the church. Whether they are looking for service times, the nearest church in that area or trying to schedule a meeting with someone for counselling, to book a wedding, funeral or christening there are many different opportunities for churches to engage with their local congregation through voice technology.
Voice activated technology is becoming more common, especially in high-end luxury products. But imagine being able to explore your faith through simply asking questions and having a conversation.
In fact, that is already happening. At a hack event in the US last year, one of the programmers from Christian Vision’s AI unit talked of how machine learning algorithms were now being used to answer people's questions about God and Christianity. Imagine being evangelised by Data! Indeed, imagine being converted through a conversation with an algorithm. I know God does the converting, but here he seems to be converting through algorithms - God in and through the tech. In fact, when those enquirers were told that they had been speaking to a bot, they said it didn't matter at all, they just wanted their questions answered!
My friends Chris Ridgeway and Adam Graber run a great podcast over in the States (Device and Virtue) and spent a whole episode discussing this project and the potential pitfalls. There's a link to the episode below. It's well worth a listen if you have the time.
Of course, communicating with our voices is something we do all the time. But we quite often get it wrong. One of the issues which some commentators are worried about is the way we speak to our chatbots or voice assistants. You'll notice they all have names usually associated with women. That in itself is interesting because we seem to be associating them with service roles whereas more heavy duty computers tend to be called by masculine names (IBM Watson, HAL and so on). There is a good spoof discussion of this online - listen and take note!
But in her BBC Radio 4 series (Digital Human), Alex Krotoski spends one episode discussing the issue of whether how we address (female) voice assistants mirrors how we address women in general - or rather whether "how we treat our subservient robots impacts how we treat one another". In other words, if we develop curt and uncivil ways of speaking to female assistants, then it is likely that this is our default way to address women in general, while at the same time allowing us to normalise that practice because Alexa probably won't complain. Of course, there are people who disagree - being polite to your appliances is simply silly! But is it? it strikes me that normalising abusive communication can never be right - read James 3:1-12 on the need to tame our tongues.
Sci-fi is riddled with stories of human abuse of cyborgs and human-like technology. We tend to treat things that we think aren't human, even if just a little less than human, worse than people that look like us. So, people of a different colour skin, children, those of a different gender, or who don't fit the able-bodied stereotypes are frequently treated as less than human - even before we interact with them. This tendency to dehumanise these categories of humans, or human-like androids/cyborgs/robots leads to their persecution in sci-fi and in real life.
It is often human-human interaction, #voicefirst, which proves to us their humanity and overrides prejudice. We need to break the cycle of silence and interact with those who are different from us to overcome our potential prejudice against other human beings. #Voicefirst, along with other forms of person to person communication, helps us recognise the worth of another human being. Donna Haraway wrote the Cyborg Manifesto about how cyborgs may end up being another group of oppressed people - they become a metaphor for contemporary oppression (seen Handmaid's Tale?).
So it is imperative that we learn to speak with voice assistants and voice devices properly, in a godly way, in a way that honours them because that's the way we should speak to everyone - that's how we should use our voice. That may seem strange thing to say about an algorithm. Note what James Poulter said in a conversation about this blog post:
JP said: But more broadly than that there is also an imperative that we teach our young people and those using these devices to engage with them in a godly fashion. That means maybe asking the kids not to shout at Alexa, or using a please and thank you when you were trying to order food using your voice assistant. In a future where we won’t be able to always tell whether we’re speaking to a robot or a real human voice, it’s on us as users, and particularly Christian users, to embed Christlike values into our digital engagement.
Ephesians 4:6 is pretty clear. There is one God and Father of all who is in all, through all and over all. Voice First is one of several technologies blurring the boundaries between human-human and human-computer communication. But we really need to take that verse seriously in in acting in a godly way with our tech because it isn't a God-free zone. God acts through the machine learning algorithms to bring knowledge and faith to people's lives through digital evangelism and just so those voice assistants need to be treated with respect and dignity and not just because we are afraid someone else may overhear us but instead because we need to learn what we do with our tongues and control them.
It may be that the #voicefirst algorithms have something godly to teach us about the way we speak?