Showing posts with label voice. Show all posts
Showing posts with label voice. Show all posts

18 December 2016

The Tattletale Doll and other Tales


by Leigh Lundin

IoT, or Internet of Things, refers to the interconnection and integration of electro-mechanical devices (‘things’). It’s often thought of in the context of home automation (heating and air conditioning, lighting, door locks, entertainment, security, and even the promise of a digital butler), but the growing IoT can be used in numerous and yet unimagined ways.
The robots are coming and they can’t be stopped. At first blush, you won’t recognize them. They don’t possess arms, legs, or even wheels. They don’t have scary or friendly faces– they don’t have faces at all.

To be sure, development of what we think of as robots is proceeding apace. Bipedal ’bots can run, jump, gently lift an egg or crush a steel can. A few years ago, the US Army sponsored deployment of a creepy-looking headless, mechanical pack mule.

The devices I’m talking about may be called voice agents or digital assistants. Physically, they may more closely resembles a carafe, a thermos bottle, or a cigar box. Compared to R2D2, they have more in common with the cutsie robotic dogs and dolls seen in toy stores. They’re verbal assistants.

The Next Voice You Hear…

Artificial intelligence is still in the Model T stage, but it’s come a long way since the famous Eliza program that carried on a conversation of sorts. The new devices not merely entertain, they can help with small things. Not many things yet– they have limitations and a long way to go, but they can control your lights, thermostat, entertainment center, and home security. They can wake you up and put you to sleep.

Most can read you the news, make notes, look up recipes, set timers and answer simple questions. “How many teaspoons in a cup? How many grams is that? Halve that recipe. Repeat. What should I do for heartburn?”

Each plays games and tells goofy jokes. They can play music through your stereo or their own surprisingly decent speakers. Ask, and they can tell you about Thomas Jefferson, Jefferson Airplane, Jefferson Davis, or TV’s the Jeffersons. If you zero in on a musician, ask the gadget to play their music. Some of these devices remember the context of the previous question.

Keep an ear out for occasional jokes, little ‘Easter eggs’, so to speak. For example, ask Google Home who shot the sheriff, and she replies, “Bob Marley, but he didn’t shoot the deputy, if that makes a difference.”

The current players are big names you already know: Amazon, Apple, Google, and Microsoft. I’ve been living with one of these gadgets for the past couple of months. It’s not entirely ready for prime time, but that day will soon arrive. One is on my shopping list for friends.

Amazon Echo
Amazon Echo, Tap, and Dot, aka Alexa

Amazon Labs market the Echo, its little sister, the Tap, and the family baby, the Dot, all with personalities known as ‘Alexa’ but can also be called ‘Amazon’. Prices run $140 for the Echo, $90 for the Tap, and $40 for the Dot.

The company claims a skill set of 3000-some tasks, including reading audiobooks to you. Unlike the competition, it can order items from Amazon, (“Alexa, quick, order toilet paper, same-day service.”)
  • You can’t miss a question posed by an Amazon customer: “I have 2 children, one named Alexa and the other named Amazon. Will this present any problems?” The 100+ answers are a riot.

Apple Home Kit
Apple Home Kit, aka Siri

Siri can be found on the iPhone, the iPad, the latest Sierra MacOS 10.12.x, and now aboard the Apple Home Kit. Unlike its main competitors, Apple doesn’t offer a stand-alone device, which can be regarded as both an advantage and disadvantage. It’s nice to have one or more go-to spots without pulling out your phone. But it's convenient if you’re in your basement and want to adjust the thermostat without running upstairs: simply tell your iPhone or Android to switch on the furnace and adjust the temperature. Your kids arriving home can turn on the lights and unlock the door with their phone.

With an iPad, Siri controls devices like lighting, iTunes music, and Apple TV. Apple is rumored to have a ‘smart dock’ in the works, so they may make it possible to have both a central location and the ability to carry around the controller. Apple also has the largest ‘ecosystem’ and best integration, although that may change rapidly as Google and Microsoft gear up.

Google Home
Google Home Assistant, aka Hey Google

Unlike the competition, the $130 Google Home doesn’t have a catchy wake-up name like Siri or Alexa, but it features a plucky female personality. Ask her to play trivia, and she becomes downright excited, bouncing off the walls of her tiny Genie bottle.

Google Home connects with Google Chromecast and can entertain you with Netflix, play internet radio and music, flash family photos on the screen, or show you a movie without your leaving your chair. One advantage is that home owners can place more than one device in the house, so a person can carry on conversations room-to-room.

Considering its massive search engine, Google would seem to have advantages over the competition, but it lags in areas, even though it has been buying up controls companies like Nest and investing in IoT research for home automation. One of the apparent issues is that Google was slow to reach out to third-party developers, so its non-home-grown actions number in the dozens compared to Apple and Amazon’s hundreds of tasks. Expect that to change sooner than later.

Microsoft Cortana
Microsoft Home Media Center Voice Assistant, aka Cortana

Cortana, Microsoft’s personal digital assistant, has received good reviews for understanding human language. However, with the fewest connectable devices, Microsoft is playing catch-up in the smart-home market.

The Redmond company has teamed up with Insteon, a player in the IoT scene. At present, the companies expect users to control their home automation with Windows computers, tablets, or Windows Phones, which seems to severely limit the market. However, Microsoft has brought Cortana and their search engine Bing to the iPhone and Android platforms, so they may intend future synergy there.

I’m surprised Microsoft hasn’t leveraged their popular X-Box into a home control system, but the company may be way ahead of me. Considering the source of the name Cortana, they should have a natural fit…

Apple and Amazon users seem happy with the Siri and Alexa names. Fans of other platforms appear less pleased with ‘Hey Google’, and downright hostile to the name Cortana. See, the name comes from the robotic AI in the first-person-shooter game, Halo. The game is fun, but bloody and violent, so many consider the awkward name inappropriate in a family setting… not that anyone expects their house to burst forth with an alien invasion.

The Others

Other companies are known for components or infrastructure in the home automation and IoT markets, including the venerable X-10, iHome, and a broad range of firms. Lack of cooperation among the major players may be offset by the interchangeability brought by the smaller team players.

A sampling of participants include mControl, HomeSeer, SmartThings, JDS Technologies, Vivint, and Iris. Honeywell, Nest, and others make thermostats and HVAC controls. Z-Wave and Zigbee are known for general controls and home IoT networking.

Concerns

All of us should be concerned these devices constantly listen. Supposedly they ignore anything until their name is called, “Hey Siri, hey Google, hey Alexa.” But the question arises about any listening post in your own home: How difficult would it be to imbed a listening device within your listening device? What if the police, or your opponent’s political party, or China where these things are made, or Mother Russia wants to listen in? But wait… a military contractor already does… listen in, that is, to your children.

Apple and Google have gone to great lengths to earn the trust of their customers. Thus far their reputations appear to be well deserved, but how difficult is it to hack any of these devices? Moreover, unless you tell them not to, all these companies upload dialogue to the cloud for voice analysis. The purposes don’t appear nefarious– yet. If you disable cloud processing, voice recognition will be less than optimal, but you can decide the risk.

Let me introduce to you two devices that listen to your children and upload the data to a military contractor.


Cayla, the Doll with i-Que

Meet My Friend Cayla. She and her brother i-Que Robot are clever playthings from Los Angeles-based Genesis Toys. Cayla is au fait with Disney and Nickelodeon, so the little conspirator can urge your small one to tug your skirt and demand more and more product.

These dolls ask for considerable information, learning your child’s name and your name. Thanks to your IP address, they know where you live, but that doesn’t stop them from asking your child for their hometown and school. Aww, it’s so cute to see your child interacting with a toy recording device.

Because that’s exactly what it is. The dolls upload conversations of anybody in the room to a Boston defense contractor that sells “voice biometric solutions” to military, intelligence, and law enforcement agencies. Your child’s talk… and yours.

Additionally, its internet connection is insecure and can be easily subverted and hacked. Bad guys could sit outside your home and listen to your conversations.

If you already own one of these dolls, consider what to do. If you hang on to it, take a couple of safety steps. First, the doll communicates through the internet via Bluetooth, probably through your phone or laptop. Disable that connection when it’s not in use. And shut off the damn doll.

Sorry to go all bah-humbug on you. But really, I want you to have a happy Chanukah and a wonderful Christmas in the privacy of your own home.

Is there already a voice assistant in your home or perhaps your Christmas stocking? What are your experiences? What are your thoughts?

“Hey Alexa, Siri, Google… read my award-winning story back to me.”

29 July 2015

Be Yourself, Or Someone Just Like You





by Robert Lopresti

First, about that title.  Stephen Stimson lives in Bellingham, as do I.  (In fact, he coined our unofficial municipal slogan: the City of Subdued Excitement.)  Mr Stimson used to run a store called Lone Wolf Antiques, and one day I strolled by and saw the entire front window of the shop covered by a piece of brown paper bearing the remarkable words of today's title.  And that's all the explanation you are going to get from me.

Now for the main topic. Lawrence Block was recently interviewed by Tripwire Magazine and I recommend you go to his site and read the whole thing.     It's all great, but there was one piece that caught my attention in particular.

The interviewers brought up the Leo Haig novels, Block's pastiche of Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe books.  Then they asked if he had read Robert Goldsborough's novels, authorized continuations of the Nero Wolfe series.  Here is his reply:

I read two early on and didn’t care for them. I gather he’s improved some, and makes a good job of writing like Stout. But, you see, there’s the thing in a nutshell; Stout didn’t try to write like Stout.

As I recall I stomped my feet and shouted: "Exactly!"

I'm not here to pick on Mr. Goldsborough, or Ace Atkins,  Ann Hillerman,  Felix Francis, or anyone else who has inherited a franchise. What I am reaching for is this: I get uncomfortable when a young writer is advised to try copying someone else's style.  I can understand doing it as an exercise, or for a pastiche, but keep it up too long and it can only stunt your growth.  Rex Stout was trying to find his own voice, not copy someone else's.

I recently read a book by Elmore Leonard called Charlie Martz and Other Stories.  They are previously unpublished, and you can understand why Leonard chose to keep them that way.  Most of them are interesting primarily as a peek into the laboratory, a chance to watch Leonard looking for his voice.  (Compare them to the tales in When The Women Came Out To Dance, stories he wrote when he was at the top of his form.)  You can see a glimpse here and a touch there of Leonard, but he wasn't quite there yet.

I would be happy to hear what you have to say about this subject but before we get to the comments, there is one more detail.  When I told my wife about Block's remarks she smiled and said "Zusya."

Zusya was a Hasidic rabbi in the nineteenth century.  He was apparently a "wise fool," like Nasrudin, Diogenes, or Saint Francis, a spiritual leader or philosopher who (deliberately?) behaved eccentrically in order to get his lessons across.  What follows is the most famous story about him. There are many versions, but this is the one I heard first.

One day Zusya's followers came into his study and found him hiding under the desk, weeping and shaking with fear.  "I have just learned the question I will be asked by the angel of death when I die.  And I am terribly frightened because I cannot answer it!"

"Rabbi," said the followers, "you are good man, and a wise man.  What could death ask you that is so terrifying?"

"I thought he might ask: 'Zusya, why were you not Moses, to lead your people to the promised land?' I could have answered that!  Or he could ask 'Zusya, why were you not David, to fight your people?'  I could answer that.  But, no!  What he is will ask is: 'Zusya,  why were you not Zusya?'"
    

29 July 2013

Voice?


by Fran Rizer

Two weeks ago, I said that today I'd talk about voice in writing.  At that time, I had a general idea what I wanted to say, but I hadn't researched it.

Since then, I've checked out several references, and found that it would be easy to spend hours and hours talking about this topic.

First, I want to narrow the subject for today. Dale Andrews gave us an excellent article on the narrative voice referring to first person or third person, and Terence Faherty followed up with more great info on that subject.  


That's not my topic.

We've all probably heard more than a life time's worth of discussion of passive voice and active voice.  


That's not my topic.

Donald Graves
1930-2010
The topic today is a characteristic of writing that many teachers as well as writers have difficulty in defining.  The term was coined by Donald Graves, Professor Emeritus at the University of New Hampshire, and author of numerous books on writing including A Fresh Look at Writing in 1994.Though some people use the term synonymously with style or tone, that's not what Graves meant, though "personal style" is close.


Another authority tells us that voice is the personality of writing while tone is the mood.  Voice may affect word choice, sentence and story structure, even punctuation.

Since Graves introduced the term, writing instructors have prompted their students to, "Find your voice," just as so many of them insist, "Write about what you know."  I differ with both of those. So far as writing about what you know, why not research and find out what you need to know to write about what you choose? 
I believe a writer can have more
than one best voice depending
upon the subject.


My response to "Find your voice" is that it's incomplete. I think it should be "Find your voice for the piece you're writing." 


We recognize the voices of writers we know just as we recognize the sound of voices of people we know. We would all know the difference in two descriptions of the same thing written by two authors such as Faulkner and Hemingway, and we would be able recognize the difference in how Agatha Christie and Mickey Spillane wrote the same scene.
Ernest Hemingway

Voice refers to the aspects that give the writing a personal flavor, and that personal flavor changes within a writer's works.  Not only does the voice change depending upon the intended audience, it varies with the author's purpose to inform, entertain, or motivate readers to take action. 

Writing to inform readers of the time and location of funeral services in an obituary does not require the same voice as the review of a book on etiquette, nor of a eulogy.

Mark Twain wrote frequently to entertain.  His writing voice is well developed, but note the difference in the voice of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.       
Mark Twain



Opening paragraph of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:

You don't know about me, without you have read a book by the name of "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," but that ain't no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly.  There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth.  That is nothing.   I ain't never seen anybody but lied, one time or another, without it was Aunt Polly--Tom's Aunt Polly, she is--and Mary, and the Widow Douglas, is all told about in that book, which is mostly a true book, with some stretchers, as I said before.

Huck Finn uses atrocious grammar, breaks rules, and interrupts himself.  All of these plus the choice of words enable us to hear and see the boy before the first paragraph is completed.

Opening of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer:

"TOM!"
No answer.
"TOM!"
No answer.
"What's gone with that boy, I wonder? You TOM!"
No answer.
The old lady pulled her spectacles down and looked over them about the room; then she put them up and looked out under them. She seldom or never looked THROUGH them for so small a thing as a boy; they were her state pair, the pride of her heart, and were built for "style," not service -- she could have seen through a pair of stove-lids just as well. She looked perplexed for a moment, and then said, not fiercely, but still loud enough for the furniture to hear:
"Well, I lay if I get hold of you I'll --"
She did not finish, for by this time she was bending down and punching under the bed with the broom, and so she needed breath to punctuate the punches with. She resurrected nothing but the cat.

The immediate difference noted is that Tom's adventures are told in third person, while Huck tells his own story in first person.  The voice of both is Mark Twain, but he changes not just the person, but the vocabulary, correctness of grammar and punctuation, and structure of the pieces. 

 
A writer may change
and further develop voice,
but please don't ever
lose it!
My personal definition of voice has become:  The individual writing style of an author is a combination of idiotypical usage of syntax, diction, punctuation, character development and dialogue within a given body of text.  The totality of that style is voice.  

One of the best explanations I've read of voice is that it's what Simon Cowell is talking about when he tells American Idol contestants to make the song their own and not just a note-for-note karaoke version.

What do you think about voice?  How do you define it?  Is your voice different for varying projects?

Until we meet again, take care of … you!