This article is more than 1 year old

Alexa and her kind let the disabled or illiterate make the web work

But they need a marketplace and the cloud to make it happen

The pell-mell rush to get everything connected and intelligent has led us into some dark corners. Robot vacuum cleaners that map your home - in order to faithfully fulfil your wishes for a clean residence - then sell your data to the highest bidder. Dolls that listen to a child, and share a bit too widely. That sort of thing.

The resulting privacy storm means we're missing the point about how voice-activated servants are going to shake things up, by removing the need for advanced literacy and dexterity to access the internet.

That change is coming because Amazon has tied Alexa in very neatly with its cloud: the things Alexa can be taught to do, “skills” in Amazon-speak, are AWS Lambda tasks, little code fragments that get triggered by the appropriate inputs. That’s made it exceptionally easy for even folks with relatively modest programming capacities to create their Alexa skills - at last count there were more than fifteen thousand.

That number suggests a marketplace for skills is already developing. I think it will soon take off.

Here's why: a friend recently reported that one of his family members - with multiple disabilities - has taken to his brand new Google Home like a duck to water.

My friend says his family member “feels highly empowered by getting Google Home to turn on lights and play the music he wants. So much so as he’s starting to experiment. Not bad considering he’d never used the ‘net until three weeks ago."

This discovery highlights a broad range of people whose capacities don’t match the devices we’ve created - fundamentally screen oriented and textual - but who, given the right opportunity, will drive these technologies in directions we’d never imagined. Someone who had no net access before Google Home will use it to learn and discover and explore - in just the same way we first used the Web when it arrived in the middle of the 1990s.

Blind to the fact that the designs our devices adopt open doors to some while closing doors to others, we also expect those who have weak literacy skills to master that reading and typing before they can have access to all the other skills we’ve shared over the last twenty years. But isn’t that just exactly backward? Isn’t it better to ask Google or Alexa to find the YouTube video or podcast or article that will help us acquire a new skill?

The net is a universal capacity amplifier; it helps everyone in their own way. But its onramps are restrictive. You have be a particular type - generally literate and wealthy - to take full advantage.

That’s about to change. With eighty percent of all adults owning a smartphone by 2020, and every one of them having access to some sort of voice interface, we can bring some equity to the access to the amazing store of knowledge we’ve built.

And that equity brings its own benefits. My friend has been reaching out to Google “to get contacts in the Home team to work with them: there are SO MANY possibilities... Accessibility is the smart home killer app."

Accessibility is therefore voice computing's killer app, as it brings the incredible capacity we’ve built for ourselves to everyone, anywhere.

The longer I look at Alexa, the less I see a first-world toy and the more I see a universal tool, that’s meant for everyone, everywhere. Skilling these systems up enough - so that people can build their own skills/activities through voice commands - will accelerate into an explosion of new capacity. Everyone, everywhere can be creating skills to solve their problems - and those solutions will likely make life better for all of the rest of us. ®

More about


Send us news

Other stories you might like