Voice Controlled Tech to Grow as People Seek ‘No Touch’ Choices

13 May 2020

Governments around the world are turning to scientific research and technology to fight the coronavirus.

Experts on technology have begun thinking about what life will be like after the virus is defeated. Some are predicting an increase in demand for voice-controlled systems to perform tasks without the need for human touch.

Voice-activated systems such as Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant have already experienced strong growth in recent years. Experts say the coronavirus crisis could drive even more growth as many people seek technology to replace physical touch.

Health officials have suggested one way to reduce the risk of the virus spreading is to clean and disinfect surfaces that people touch.

Jonathan Collins is research director for ABI Research, a service that helps organizations face technology issues. He says voice-activated systems in homes "can mean avoiding commonly touched surfaces" to control smartphones, televisions, lighting, doors and heating systems.

Collins said the coronavirus crisis is likely to drive "additional motivation and incentive" for home voice controllers. The French news agency AFP reported his comments.

In this Monday, June 5, 2017, file photo, the HomePod speaker is photographed in a a showroom during an announcement of new products at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference in San Jose, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)
In this Monday, June 5, 2017, file photo, the HomePod speaker is photographed in a a showroom during an announcement of new products at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference in San Jose, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)

ABI estimates that shipments for voice control devices for ‘smart' home use hit 141 million worldwide last year. It predicts that number could grow by about 30 percent in 2020.

An estimate by Juniper Research showed the number of voice assistants in use for all purposes reached 4.2 billion devices this year. Juniper estimates the number could grow to 8 billion by 2023.

Avi Greengart is a technology expert with market research company Techsponential. He told AFP he expects a wider choice of business uses for voice technologies as companies now face new health and safety concerns.

"Looking forward, office spaces will need to move towards more touch-free controls," Greengart said.

Voice-activated systems can be one solution, along with motion sensors to control lighting, he added. "I do expect smart speakers - along with an emailed list of commands - to be a common feature at hotels and other rental properties. The fewer touch points, the better," Greengart added.

Julian Issa follows technology for Futuresource Consulting. He notes there had already been rising use of voice assistants since the coronavirus crisis began. But he said most of the increase is likely not driven by people trying to avoid touching surfaces. Instead, more people are using the assistants because they are spending far more time with their devices while staying at home.

British-based Voxly Digital develops voice apps for Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant. It reported last month that 48 percent of people in Britain said they were using voice assistants more since being home because of the coronavirus.

About one-fourth of British homes own a smart speaker. Twenty-one percent of users in the study said they had used voice assistants twice as much, or more, since the pandemic began. Voxly Digital also reported that 40 percent of users predicted they would continue to use voice apps more once the crisis is over.

British advertising industry group IAB UK published research showing large increases in online listenership during April, the website Voicebot.ai reported. In the United States, the Nielsen company reported radio listening was up among nearly a third of the population, including 10 percent more people listening on smart speakers.

Experts say they expect other growth areas for voice assistants to be in industries that deal with large numbers of people every day. These include health care centers, large retail businesses and entertainment companies.

One example is a medical tool already in use at the world famous Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. The tool uses Amazon Alexa to give people information about signs of the virus and related information.

Veton Kepuska is a computer engineering professor at the Florida Institute of Technology. He specializes in speech recognition technologies. He told AFP he is seeking to develop voice-activated robots that could take over many tasks from doctors or nurses from a safe distance.

Kepuska explained, "The pandemic has created a situation where we need to think about how to deliver services to people who need our help without putting ourselves in danger."

I'm Bryan Lynn.

Bryan Lynn wrote this story for VOA Learning English based on reports from Agence France-Presse and online sources. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

task – n. a piece of work

disinfect – v. to clean something with a chemical to destroy bacteria

motivation n. enthusiasm for doing something

incentiven. something that encourages a person to do something or work harder

smartadj. something that uses advanced computer systems to operate

feature n. a typical quality or important part of something

rental n. an arrangement to rent something as opposed to buying it

app n. a program for a smartphone or other deice that performs a special function

retail n. the activity of selling products to the public in shops and on the internet

entertainment n. shows, films, television or other performances or activities that entertain people