Artificially-intelligent digital assistants like Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa and the Google Assistant are slowly but surely taking over the world, appearing in myriad devices ranging from phones to speakers to TVs to cars and, as of last week, even kitchen appliances like microwaves.
If you’re a frequent user of any of the above assistants, though, there’s likely one feature you'll have wished for at various times and in certain situations – the ability for them to be a bit more discrete.
Now Amazon has provided more details on its plans to address that need by enhancing Alexa's ability to understand whispered speech. The upcoming feature, which was first announced last week alongside the company’s range of new Echo devices, means that when Alexa detects a user whispering, the assistant will automatically reply in a lower-volume, hushed tone.
The feature is coming to the US market first, and will be available beginning in October.
Learning to listen
According to Zeynab Raeesy, a speech scientist working on Amazon’s Alexa Speech team, “Whispered speech is predominantly unvoiced, meaning that it doesn’t involve the vibration of the vocal cords, and it has less energy in lower frequency bands than ordinary speech.”
That meant that to enable the new capabilities, the team had to make adjustments to the way sound was processed after being captured, and they’re planning to present a paper on their findings (opens in new tab) at the IEEE Workshop on Spoken Language Technology in December.
With Google, Amazon and Apple all hoping that voice assistants will be a huge market for growth, adding whisper support to speech recognition technologies makes a lot of sense.
It gives users the ability to use assistants more discretely and should, theoretically, help people feel more comfortable about using voice control in a much wider range of environments – like when you’re out in public, at the office or school, or perhaps just trying to avoid waking up that sleeping kitty on your lap.
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Of course, better contextual awareness also has the potential to make AI assistants seem a bit more human, too – although whether you see that as a pro or con will probably depend on your general feelings towards this burgeoning age of artificial intelligence.
We for one welcome our new digital overlords, and we're looking forward to the day when we can sneak out of bed for a midnight snack, and quietly whisper ”Alexa, warm up this slice of chocolate cake” to the microwave without disturbing the rest of the household.