Is voice a game changer? And what of GDPR? A tale of two colliding needs

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Just like every hyped technology that has come before it, voice-first interaction or smart speaker devices promise a ‘transformational’ change. What they finally end up delivering in contrast to the promise, remains to be seen. At its core the proposition is made up of 3 key components. First the ears, a microphone and software that ceaselessly listens to recognise a specific human utterance; the wake word, from a cacophony of noise.  Second the brain, a virtual ‘Assistant’ that, genie-like, lives in the cloud and can access the sum of all human knowledge aka the Internet. Third the voice, an old fashioned speaker that delivers the output of the disembodied ‘Assistant’ in the shape of music or conversation.

As a box of tricks, this must rank in the same league as the flying-cars, hoverboards and holidays on moon bases that we were all promised would be commonplace by the turn of the millennium. The difference is this one has arrived in the high street and the home and costs less than a single ticket from London to Birmingham.

In its current state, the analogy that best fits this technology is the virtual assistant as a personalised ‘Concierge Service’, responding to requests for services and informing about events. Today’s Alexa and Google Home can deliver medication reminders, put you in touch with relatives, collect well-being information and deliver generic ‘localised’ information. In the near future, the user profiles that these virtual assistants rely upon will link to status and frailty to make the conversation relevant. User profiles today are not personal – your name, your voice, your previous shopping or online search queries.  This is the specific area that Remindme Care is focused on, to enable preferences, habits and life experience of an individual to inform the support and prompting that these devices provide.

But when we require technology to be more relevant to our situation, we necessarily have to give up some data to support that personalisation. In a context where Cambridge Analytica and Facebook have quite rightly heightened concerns about where our data ends up and what it is used for, the technology and care industries are facing the upheaval that is GDPR. What may appear a perfect storm, should instead be seen as perfect timing. With consumers attentive to the issue, we have been provided with a framework mandating informed consent. The opportunity is there to enable consumers to make decisions that gives them control of their privacy.

Late adoption and disappointment have characterized the elderly care industry’s relationship with technology, but the real benefit of voice technology will be content tailored to the patient and their experience. Conversation is a natural form of engagement that is familiar to users even when they have little technological knowhow, so carers and clients alike will face far fewer barriers to benefiting from its potential. Our job will be to keep them informed of the privacy they are giving up along the way and make the outcomes delightful enough to warrant that cost.

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