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A tall glass of orange juice is the very image of refreshment, packed with vitamins and radiating with sunshine freshness. In lieu of pricey fresh-squeezed, average Americans enjoyed what the latest preservation technology offered: canned juice, which was essentially boiled to death. Unsurprisingly, its flavor was…somewhat lacking.


T o understand the forces being marshaled to pull us away from screens and push us toward voices, you have to know something about the psychology of the voice. In it, she explains that their croaks, unique to each frog, communicated to fellow frogs who and where they were.

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The point of the Dash Wand was obvious: It made buying products from Amazon easier. Many articles have been written about the expressions of depression and suicide threats that manufacturers have been picking up on. What will that be like? Every time it happened, I was startled, although I thought I understood why she was doing it, insofar as I understand anything that goes on inside that squat slice of black tube.

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Alexa needs to get better at grasping context before she can truly inspire trust. In the beginning was the Word, not the Scroll.

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The Assistant pulls out of his memory bank one of the many responses to this statement that have been programmed into him. T he manufacturers of smart speakers would like to capitalize on these psychosocial effects. For the moment, these machines remain at the dawn of their potential, as likely to botch your request as they are to fulfill it.

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Everyday space: home, office, car. Voice technologies such as telephones, recording devices, and the radio have had a particularly momentous impact on the course of political history—speech and rhetoric being, of course, the classical means of persuasion. Their speech makes us treat them as if they had a mind. Proust would have understood. Fast-forward a few hundred million years, and the human vocal apparatus, with its more complex musculature, produces language, not croaks.

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The basic appeal of the Echo, she said, is that it frees your hands. Alexa and her ilk may get there in less than half that time. In the near future, everything from your lighting to your air-conditioning to your refrigerator, your coffee maker, and even your toilet could be wired to a system controlled by voice.

But having a personality also helps make a voice relatable.

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In part, this is textbook brand management: These devices must be ambassadors for their makers. We communicate with them, not through them. They want to colonize space. And trust matters. You can also reach out to the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance at for more resources.

Her daughters, 10 and 7 at the time, instantly started chattering away at Alexa, as if conversing with a plastic cylinder was the most natural thing in the world.

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Like the frogs, they convey the identifying markers of an individual: gender, size, stress level, and so on. They create and destroy civilizations. For one thing, voices create intimacy. For a few days this summer, Alexa, the voice assistant who speaks to me through my Amazon Echo Dot, took to ending our interactions with a whisper: Sweet dreams. Her voice emanates from more than third-party gadgets, including headphones, security systems, and automobiles. Even if we try to suppress our real feelings, anger, boredom, or anxiety will often reveal themselves when we speak.

For the moment, considerable friction remains. As Alexa grows in sophistication, it will be that much harder to throw the Echo on the heap of old gadgets to be hauled off on electronics-recycling day. Based on current sales, Canalys estimates that this figure will reach million by the end of this year. Evolution has not prepared me to know. Voices can express certain emotional truths better than faces can.

There are people who can help you. Disembodied voices accrue yet more influence from the primal yearning they awaken. He sums up the biggest obstacle to Alexa achieving that sophistication in a single word: context.

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She tells you what she thinks you want to know. The company that succeeds in cornering the smart-speaker market will lock appliance manufacturers, app deers, and consumers into its ecosystem of devices and services, just as Microsoft tethered the personal-computer industry to its operating system in the s.

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A Lexus? Not just because consumers will give up on her if she bungles one too many requests, but because she is more than a search engine. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Human history is a by-product of human inventions. I asked tech executives about this, and they said they try to deal with such statements responsibly.

New tools—wheels, plows, PCs—usher in new economic and social orders.

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Freud understood this long before empirical research demonstrated it. But once Reid had set up an Echo in her kitchen, she got it.

At least with Alexa, she and her daughters can keep their hands on their silverware while they question its origins. Echo owners can wander around living rooms, kitchens, and offices doing this or that while requesting random bits of information or ordering toilet paper or an Instant Pot, no clicks required. You could try talking with a friend, or your doctor. Byaccording to another research firm, Ovum, there will be almost as many voice-activated assistants on the planet as people.

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She chooses one answer from many. Yet there is an inherent appeal to the devices, too—one beyond mere consumerism. Machines give us a way to reveal shameful feelings without feeling shame. Smart speakers are yet another way for companies to keep tabs on our searches and purchases. Within our lifetimes, these devices will likely become much more adroit conversationalists.

My sister-in-law got her Echo early, in Catrin Morris, a mother of two who lives in Washington, D. She had to fight the urge to whip out her smartphone to answer some tantalizing question, such as: Which came first, the fork, the spoon, or the knife? Alexa alone already works with more than 20, smart-home devices representing more than 3, brands. He could listen all the harder for the nuggets of truth in their ramblings, while they, undistracted by scowls or smiles, slipped into that twilight state in which they could unburden themselves of stifled feelings. Cynics of every age suspect their virtual assistants of eavesdropping, and not without reason.

Alexa, should we trust you?

When we converse with our personal assistants, we bring them closer to our own level. When someone talks to us, we hear the words, the syntax, and the prosody all at once. But voices convey more than language. The technical term for this collection of traits is prosody.

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You may be skeptical of a conversion narrative offered up by a top Amazon executive. Frictionlessness is the goal, anyway. But as smart-speaker sales soar, computing power is also expanding exponentially.

In fact, it may be a boon. It took about 30 years for mobile phones to out humans. Amazon explained that Alexa must have been awakened by a word that sounded like Alexa Texas? The explanation did not make me feel much better. Privacy concerns have not stopped the march of these devices into our homes, however.

Our vocal atures consist of not only our style of stringing words together but also the sonic marinade in which those words steep, a rich medley of tone, rhythm, pitch, resonance, pronunciation, and many other features. By the time they do, they will have fully insinuated themselves into our lives.

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Perhaps you think that talking to Alexa is just a new way to do the things you already do on a screen: shopping, catching up on the news, trying to figure out whether your dog is sick or just depressed. The prosody usually passes beneath notice, like a mighty current directing us toward a particular emotional response. I had gone onto Amazon. No need to walk over to the desktop and type a search term into a browser; no need to track down your iPhone and punch in your passcode. And indeed, these devices no longer serve solely as intermediaries, portals to e-commerce or nytimes.

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It really is remarkable how often smart speakers—even Google Home, which often outperforms the Echo in tests conducted by tech websites—flub their lines. Why would we turn to computers for solace? And with their eerie ability to elicit confessions, they could acquire a remarkable power over our emotional lives. I turned to Diana Van Lancker Sidtis, a speech-and-language scholar at NYU, to get a better appreciation for the deep connection between voice and emotion.

Gifted with the once uniquely human power of speech, Alexa, Google Assistant, and Siri have already become greater than the sum of their parts. The point of the Echo was less obvious. These secretarial companions may be faux-conscious nonpersons, but their words give them personality and social presence. According to a report by National Public Radio and Edison Research8 million Americans own three or more smart speakers, suggesting that they feel the need to always have one within earshot.

These and other tech corporations have grand ambitions. Not interplanetary space. Followed by irrelevance.

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Why would consumers buy a device that gave them the weather and traffic conditions, functioned as an egg timer, and performed other tasks that any garden-variety smartphone could manage? Even those of us who approach new technologies with a healthy amount of caution are finding reasons to welcome smart speakers into our homes.

The ramifications of this shift are likely to be wide and profound.

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