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Voice is the new oil

Your voice is becoming the new battleground of the Internet economy, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK



Your voice is worth a fortune. No, you’re not about to win a recording contract. But we are about to see a replay of the way our clicks on websites – and the clicks of billions of others – became the heart of the data economy. The mantra of the world that turned Microsoft, Facebook, Google and Amazon into the world’s biggest companies is that “data is the new oil”.

But now, clicks and typed searches are fast being replaced by voice commands and spoken searches. Google Assistant and Apple’s Siri are suddenly available to half the world’s population, via the Android and iOS phones that dominate the smartphone world.

At first, it seemed benign, and a natural way to make services and applications available to a vast proportion of the global population that cannot read, write or type. But now, barely a week goes by without a revelation of a major player in the Internet industry not only allowing users’ voice activity to be intercepted, but actively using such interception as a means of enhancing services.

Only when they are caught out, do they tend to admit their misdoings, and offer assurances that it won’t happen again.

However, the incentive to find new ways to exploit your voice are massive. Right now, the best voice assistants process spoken instructions or questions via the Cloud, where their vast resources and ultra-sophisticated artificial intelligence engines fine tune the delivery and provide the user with a seemingly accurate service.

However, when the user is offline, the voice assistance either does not work, or becomes a pale shadow of the connected version. The reality is that the machine learning and artificial intelligence built into phones is still rudimentary, and the disconnected phone is still a blunt instrument in the war for your voice.

This is one of the reasons access to your voice is so important to the big players: the more voice data points they have, the more errors they can identify, and the more feedback they can get and give, the better their voice assistants become, and the better they compete in the war for attention.

That is only one reason why voice is the new oil.

The other core factor is the extent to which spoken words in general conversation are being used to “personalise” your services. Which is, of course, a euphemism for targeted ads.

So when you are discussing a specific product, service or intention, and then suddenly start seeing ads for that very thing crop up in banners on sites you visit, it’s not paranormal. Rather, it’s the new normal – for now.

For example, see how Google gives itself permission to record your voice and “audio input” to improve speech recognition:

Think that’s creepy? Amazon advises that “the voice recordings associated with your account are used to improve the accuracy of the results”. It even lets you listen to those very recordings. The link is hidden deep in the Amazon website, and unlikely to be discovered in random browsing. See it here:

This helps explain why we often imagine that our homes or other environments are being bugged by the giant corporations, poised to send us adverts the moment we mention a product or travel destination. It is because they are indeed bugging us, but with our permission, granted when we signed up to use their free services.

As the cliché goes, if the service is free, you are the product. Except that now, your voice is the product.

Read more about how tech companies are hiring contractors to listen to voice commands.