Talkin’ bout the Alexa Generation – by Mark Lippett

“Alexa. Who or what is the Alexa Generation

When staying with friends last weekend, I asked their 6-year-old if she had a favourite song. ‘Alexa. Play Taylor Swift Shake it Off’, she immediately commanded their Echo device. As someone who lives and breathes voice interfaces, there was something about this casual, matter-of-fact interaction that really struck me – and it got me thinking.

The Alexa Generation is here – children are now growing up with voice-enabled technologies around them as the everyday familiar. By the time these children are teenagers, they’ll expect devices to be voice-enabled and their lifestyles will be inflected by digital assistants in a way unlike any generation before them.

Our Alexa Children will interact fluently, efficiently and naturally with their voice-enabled devices. They will search using voice, not text. Already, one in four 16 to 24 year olds use voice search on mobile … that’s one in four searches made by voice. Text based commands will decline as our Alexa Children form increasingly human relationships with technology. They’ll take their virtual assistants with them wherever they go.They’ll navigate websites by voice. And a remote control will look as strange to them as a cassette tape does to millennials.

Alexa children show a different pattern of usage

According to research from Childwise, 42 per cent of children aged between nine and 16 use voice recognition gadgets at home. And unlike many adults, children are using it for more than music streaming. They’re turning to these virtual assistants for help with homework, to look up facts and check spelling.

Some worry that the growth of voice technology could have an adverse effect on how children learn to communicate, However, for every skeptic there is an evangelist; Solace Shen, a researcher at Cornell who studied interactions between children and technology, says she sees opportunities for educational and entertainment content on voice-enabled devices that doesn’t “suck kids in”, in the same way that a smartphone does.

Indeed, universal voice commands, such as those used to instruct the Echo, come as naturally to the Alexa Generation as Windows and Mac operating systems came to their generational predecessors. And perhaps voice will bring us a behavioural shift – or at least a better balance between screen-time and time spent engaged in active listening.

We’re moving towards a more natural conversation with technology

Over 39 million Americans now own an Echo, and yet many of those are using a fraction of Alexa’s capabilities. Why? Well, it turns out that adults feel very self-conscious addressing technology directly. According to KDDI’s 2017 voice search study of the Japanese population, 70 per cent of users said it’s “embarrassing to voice search in front of others.” And when asked how they used voice-enabled devices at home, 40 per cent of respondents said, “I only do so with nobody in the house.”

The Alexa Generation vault clear of this barrier. There is a fluidity with which the Alexa Children interact with voice-enabled technologies that’s free of inhibition. This, coupled with advancements in human-machine interface technology, means that over time, the friction between human and machine interactions will erode away, until a conversation with the Internet of Things feels as natural as a conversation with a parent, friend or sibling.

Digital assistants will simply blend into the fabric of our lives

For the Alexa Generation, voice control seems as natural as the English rain. The culture and lifestyle of those growing up with voice-enabled technologies will be worlds apart from that of those born in the ‘80s and ‘90s. It’ll be defined by a cooperative co-existence with AI and technology, whereby voice-activated digital assistants become an integral, trusted part of everyday life.

Today, a demonstration of Alexa’s talents brings about surprise and fuels dinner-table discussion, but tomorrow, digital assistants will simply blend into the fabric of the lives of the Alexa Children. That the novelty will wear off is something to be celebrated, because it’ll marks the point when voice-assisted devices start to fulfill their full potential as tools (not toys) and heralds the passing of the torch from the Millennials to the Alexa Generation.

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