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Australian Hi-Fi Magazine
July / August 2019
Editor's Lead In
Who's Talking... And Who's Listening?

Editorial By Greg Borrowman


Australian Hi-Fi Magazine July / August 2019


  According to The Guardian newspaper, within two years there will be more voice assistants on the Internet than there are people on the planet.

This is particularly relevant to the world of audio now that more hi-fi components are integrating voice assistants, but you don't have to look very far to find hi-fi amplifiers, receivers, soundbars, and streamers that have voice technology on board. But hi-fi is a niche market, with mostly smaller players involved in design, manufacture and distribution, and I am not sure that they're necessarily up to speed on the psychology of voice assistance.

Incorporating voice assistance on hi-fi equipment seems like a good idea, but could it backfire? It certainly backfired on car manufacturer BMW, which found that sales of one of its formerly best-selling models had slumped. What had gone wrong? It turned out that it had added sat-nav, which in everyone's opinion at BMW had to be a plus: except that it wasn't... because the sat-nav voice was female, and it turned out that the (mainly) German men who had been buying this particular (expensive) model did not want to take route directions from a woman... even a disembodied one.

Apparently, 'male' voice assistants are also de rigueur in Arab nations, so if any hi-fi manufacturer wants to sell in Saudi Arabia, or Iran, they'd better make damn' sure their products have male voices. But if a company goes down this route, is it not actually promoting gender inequality? I'd say so. At the very least, buyers should be given the option of selecting either a male or a female voice, and maybe, for those people who prefer not identify as either, a computer-generated voice should be a third option.


Australian Hi-Fi Magazine July / August 2019


But no matter what flavour your assistant's voice might take, there's the problem of privacy. When you activate a voice assistant, you're essentially putting a live microphone in your home that has the potential to record every sound made in your home 24/7. So if you're berating your children — or your partner — or you're putting on a croaky voice to tell the office you're taking a 'sicky', your faithful digital assistant could very well be recording everything, and it could potentially be played back in a future court case. Personally, I'm not convinced that this is happening, though I'm perfectly sure that technically, it's certainly possible.

If you think it's not possible, I have two words for you: Google Earth. Yep, it's now possible to be sitting in your own home and bring up a photograph not only of a person's home as a bird's eye view, but a view of the front of their house, showing their garden, the types of cars parked in the driveway or, if you live in Athens, that there's an illegal pool in their back yard. And that's for almost any home on the entire planet.

So is it so far-fetched that somewhere out there, a giant server is recording every conversation in every household on the planet? I know of some households that think so, and have banned the use of voice assistant products in their homes entirely, irrespective of whether the voices are male, female or 'other'.

One problem is that playing politics with the gender of voice assistants is that it's going to wreak havoc with marketing strategies, not least because many serious, peer-reviewed psychological studies have proved beyond any shadow of a doubt that low-pitched voices are perceived as being more authoritative than higher-pitched ones... and this is true for both men and women. Me, I don't care who tells me where to go so long as I get there!


--- Greg Borrowman




Australian Hi-Fi Magazine

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