Cracking tech's next big challenge

19 Jun 2018  |  Andy Dobson 
Cracking tech's next big challenge

Half of UK households are forecast to own a voice assistant by 2022, as we embrace the era of 'ambient technology'. Consumer trust will need to be central to its success, writes Andy Dobson

There is an oft-quoted (and misquoted) view of the sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke which states that any technology, sufficiently advanced, is indistinguishable from magic. One of the defining attributes of a magic trick, of course, is that nobody but the magician knows how it's done, and the world of technology can often feel like this.

The suspicion that there might be sleight of hand behind the magic in our digital world, hidden behind its complexity, is making us anxious about new technologies. And even the most excitable among us would concede that the wonder of tech has been lacklustre of late.

Despite being the operating systems of our daily lives, phones are no longer the objects of desire they once were. Social media is problematic, and we now have definitive proof around the misuse of personal data in the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

After 25 years of digital transformation, our tech-driven world is at an inflection point. Screen addiction, ‘Big Tech’ culture and ethics, the impact of social media on emotional wellbeing, and fake news are all under heavy scrutiny.

We’re left wondering whether the price we've paid for lives of digital convenience is worth it. Before we can embrace the magic again, we need to challenge our assumptions and rethink our methods.

The next era

To assess the benefits and risks of technology, we need to consider its evolution. At Google I/O this May, we got a glimpse of this when Google showed its voice assistant making a natural language phone call to a real human to book a hair appointment. It calls this Duplex, and as tricks go, it was a pretty good one.

Voice assistants and the AI processes that power them are, without doubt, the new frontier of living digitally. Almost half of UK households, and over half of US households are forecast to own a device with a voice assistant by 2022. These represent a shift to an era of 'ambient technology', and what Google demonstrated here was nothing less than the return of magic.

Ambient technology doesn’t present as a controllable, interactive experience. It effectively runs our lives in the background. AI, Automation and 'smart' things are all passive technologies which, through our data, understand our context and provide effortless service.

But are we ok with this when we don't know what trick the magicians are using? How is this technology to be used and abused once it's out of the confines of the demonstration theatre?

If an automated assistant is going to represent me, how do I know that it’s doing so in my interest? And how do we know what's real and what's artificial? (It’s worth noting that Google has since insisted it will make this clear.)

Trust or nothing

For news media brands in particular, these issues are especially pertinent and the stakes are high. They live and die on the basis of trust, and the ambient age presents new challenges, including the threat of audio fakery. Despite ongoing revenue issues, support for mainstream, quality journalism is in good shape right now.

77% of UK and US respondents believe ‘quality journalism is key to a healthy democracy’ in a recent study by Kantar. But these brands will have to work hard to both sustain and communicate their standards.

Deliberate validation and transparency in the design process could help here. By this, I mean a clear signal to the user about what the service does, how it's doing it, what data it’s collecting, and what agency the user has over its behaviour.

A bit like the Incognito window in Chrome, which explains exactly what is and isn’t hidden. Or a bit like Instagram’s new ‘usage insights’ feature, that tells users exactly how much time they’ve spent in the app.

For broader entertainment offers, that deal in fiction and have license to play, the outlook is different again. They have typically conveyed their brand through their visual language, content and communications. The social age forced them to consider how to interact with people, rather than simply broadcast. In the ambient era, they’ll need to push this idea harder.

The BBC has taken steps to harness ambient tech, thinking especially about voice as a format for storytelling. Last year's The Inspection Chamber and the forthcoming "Listen With Alexa” are nice experiments.

But how can the platform become more than another channel for content, albeit a slightly smarter one? How could Alexa et al become active brand ambassadors? To create a rich and personal, peer-to-peer like experience that genuinely delights the audience, design approaches will need to be responsive, flexible, and still coherent. It’s a big but exciting ask.

Overall, new technologies have so much potential. They are far more accessible than screen-based UX, and can open up the digital realm - and the brands that thrive there - for more and more people.

By balancing excitement and experimentation with awareness and management of the possible challenges, media and entertainment brands can build genuinely positive relationships with their audiences. The ones who get ambient right will rewrite the rules at the heart of these creaking business models.

Andy Dobson, technical director, Wolff Olins


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14 Feb 2019 

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