Posey's Tips & Tricks

COVID-19 Opens the Door for 'Natural Machine Interaction' Technologies

The next wave of technical innovation will be driven by businesses looking to provide more touchless experiences to their coronavirus-wary customers.

If you had asked me a year ago where I thought the tech industry was headed, I probably would have answered that we are headed toward the age of "smart everything."

Machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) were really in vogue last year. It seemed that nearly every vendor was scrambling to include some sort of machine learning into their products. It reminded me of the way things were several years back when all the tech vendors were rushing to include cloud in their offerings.

While I don't expect to see anyone slam the brakes on the machine learning trend anytime soon, my guess is that the next wave of technical innovation is not going to be directly related to machine learning (although machine learning may very well play a role behind the scenes).

So what is this next wave of technical innovation? It's what I like to think of as natural machine interaction -- things like voice interfaces and gesture control. One reason for this is that a tremendous amount of work has already been done on developing these types of technologies, and they are only now beginning to reach the point where I would consider them to be mature.

Consider voice control. Back in the mid-1990s, I experimented with an IBM product called ViaVoice, a prehistoric dictation tool that left a lot to be desired. ViaVoice required you to use what was called "discrete speech." In other words, you had to pause after every spoken word to give the computer time to catch up. This wasn't because my computer had inadequate CPU resources, but rather because the software was not able to determine where one word ended and the next began unless you paused between words.

Of course, things have gotten a lot better. I have been using Dragon NaturallySpeaking by Nuance for many years. It allows me to write far more quickly than I could if I had to type everything. Even so, the software isn't perfect. It occasionally misunderstands what I am saying; on more than one occasion, I have received an e-mail from an editor who was baffled by something that Dragon thought I said. Despite its occasional bad behavior, Dragon NaturallySpeaking tends to work pretty well for me.

It's worth noting, however, that from what I can tell, Nuance has stopped its development efforts on the desktop version of Dragon in favor of a cloud-based solution. The company hasn't released a new version of NaturallySpeaking in years. This does not mean that voice interface development efforts have come to a grinding halt. A huge amount of work has been done on cloud-based speech recognition in recent years and the technology has become quite reliable. Think about it: When was the last time that Siri or Alexa misunderstood something that you said?

Voice isn't the only natural machine interface that has matured in recent years. Gesture control has also come a long way. Think about the Xbox Kinect, released a decade ago. I found Kinect to be more of a novelty than a first-class gaming interface. Some Kinect-enabled games worked pretty well, while others were nearly unplayable. Fast-forward to today. Microsoft's HoloLens 2 is able to accurately track all of the wearer's finer movements in real-time. In fact, I once saw a demo in which someone wearing a HoloLens 2 device demonstrated the speed and accuracy of the device's finger-tracking technology by playing a virtual piano. By comparison, the Xbox Kinect sometimes had trouble telling that I had moved my arm. You can see just how far the technology has come.

But even though speech recognition, motion tracking and other natural machine interface technologies have come a long way in recent years, I don't think technical maturity is enough to elevate these technologies to become the next big thing, at least not by itself.

The reason I expect to see natural machine interface technologies in the forefront is because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Stores, restaurants and other businesses have been bending over backward to help customers and employees feel safe. As an example, I am writing this column from a car dealership's waiting room as I wait for my vehicle to be serviced. The moment that I stepped out of my car, someone doused the interior with what I can only assume was some sort of disinfectant spray. That's just one example of a safety measure that has become commonplace today, but would have been nearly unthinkable a year ago.

As businesses continue to go to extremes to help people feel safe, they will inevitably gravitate toward reducing risks through touchless interactions. This is already being done in some capacity, albeit without the technology. I was recently at a store, for example, in which I was not allowed to swipe my own credit card at checkout. Instead, one of the store's employees disinfected my card and swiped it on my behalf.

Even after the pandemic is over, I am guessing that businesses (especially retail) will still strive to provide touchless experiences. This will inevitably drive the adoption of touchless technologies. You might eventually see speech-controlled drink machines in restaurants or perhaps gesture-controlled credit card readers that allow you to enter your PIN without actually touching the screen.

While these types of devices might seem futuristic, the technology already exists. It will take touchless devices some time to replace current-generation devices, but I am certain that businesses will embrace technology as a tool for creating touchless experiences.

About the Author

Brien Posey is a 19-time Microsoft MVP with decades of IT experience. As a freelance writer, Posey has written thousands of articles and contributed to several dozen books on a wide variety of IT topics. Prior to going freelance, Posey was a CIO for a national chain of hospitals and health care facilities. He has also served as a network administrator for some of the country's largest insurance companies and for the Department of Defense at Fort Knox. In addition to his continued work in IT, Posey has spent the last several years actively training as a commercial scientist-astronaut candidate in preparation to fly on a mission to study polar mesospheric clouds from space. You can follow his spaceflight training on his Web site.

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