Holger Schulze, cultural scientist and professor of musicology at the University of Copenhagen © Michael Pfister
They predict the weather in Hamburg, tell us the name of the capital of Malaysia or play our favorite music: Digital language assistants should make our everyday life easier. Just the voice is enough to control - a button or touchscreen is not needed. By 2021, the number of devices with voice control to exceed that of the people on this planet, forecasts the US consulting firm Ovum.
So far, however, the devices often drive us crazy, because they only half understand our instructions and dialogues with them are almost impossible. And so many people do not feel comfortable with having a permanently listening device in the living room.
What does this mean for us? What does the communication with the assistants do with our communication with each other? Who listens when? How does our image of women change when almost all of the assistants use female voices? And who actually domi- nates who - man the machine or the machine the man?
The new episode of the ZEIT ONLINE digital podcast Will that be? deals with the opportunities, risks and social impacts of this technology. Guest will be Holger Schulze, cultural scientist and professor of musicology at the University of Copenhagen. He is researching acoustic sensor technology, also with regard to the man-machine interface.
Schulze is convinced that language assistants will soon be able to understand nuances - simply because this is of interest to the manufacturers. However, the devices are not to be confused with conversation partners. "We have to make it clear that we do not have a conversation," he says in a conversation with the ZEIT-ONLINE editors Meike Laaff and Lisa Hegemann: De facto you would get a similar result ejected, as if you put a few keywords in a text box would enter. "It's not about being friendly to them or serving them" - because between voice input and voice output stands the department store, which wants to sell products, services and database access.
The fear that the use of language assistants pardon children and adolescents and their tone, does not divulge Schulze. "Children play with everything in the world," he says. But when dealing with language assistants, the "helicopter-parent vision of comprehensively protected childhood" encounters completely unrestricted access to information and services. However, he does not think much of blocking the devices or prohibitions, which are often just incentives. "Children should learn how to handle these devices," says Schulze.
It also explains why language assistants bring us back to the time of the servants, how our image of women is shaped by the maid-like communication of a language assistant, and why it feels like social fraud that allows tech companies to evaluate voice recordings of employees.
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