George, Ching-Fu, and I have been tasked with looking into the possibility of incorporating voice systems into the operations of the library—to respond to patron queries, to provide relevant information about library and College events or services, or to assist in a variety of other domains.
If you use a smartphone, you’re already familiar with this technology. Perhaps you use it to send text messages to your friends or call your mom hands-free because you’re in the kitchen baking and have flour all over your hands. Conversely, in light of misspelled words, misdialed numbers, and an unacceptable record of embarrassing activations in the middle of important meetings, maybe your relationship with your digital assistant is more strained.
In recent years this technology has become increasingly visible, ubiquitous, and even customizable. For example, one manufacturer now allows users to create their own prompts. Instead of being constrained to asking for music, weather, or directions, users can now program their devices to read flashcards, tell jokes, or describe the services available in their bed-and-breakfast operation.
In this technophilic milieu, it is only logical that such advances would spur the development of new solutions. For example, responding to these events, institutions such as Arizona State University, Northeastern University, and Saint Louis University became some of the first to test the potential of this technology on larger scales and in novel contexts: they provided student dormitory rooms with their own voice-control devices, hoping alternately “to enhance engineering students’ experiences” and “to simplify student life.”
While in their current infancy these projects are limited to addressing standard queries—such as those concerning university events, building hours, and dining hall menus—many technologists, and even some administrators, have voiced that in a rosy future they aspire for these devices to be linked to students’ accounts, to enable them to check their grades, receive updates on their class schedule, or lodge any number of similar searches.
The reception, however, has not been universally positive. Doug Levin, president of the consulting company EdTech Strategies, laments that these university projects are “a way to seem cutting-edge by outsourcing core services to a gimmick technology which could as easily be offered via a mobile app or web interface—and without introducing new privacy or security concerns.” Echoing Levin’s sentiment, Jim Dickinson, associate editor at the online publication Wonkhe, writes similarly that in these contexts voice-control is merely “a solution in search of a problem.”
Now it’s your turn to decide… Let us know what you think below.
(Front image courtesy of Vinta.)