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Voice of reason: The Keyboard Less Office

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Richard Acreman is a Partner at WM Reply, a company dedicated to building world-class intranets and business solutions with Microsoft Technology. Their mission is to build the world’s best Microsoft SharePoint and Office 365 solutions to help organisations overcome business challenges. He explores the importance of voice recognition.

Voice recognition technologies have been around since at least 1952, when Bell Laboratories (of Alexander Graham Bell fame) created it’s ‘Audrey’ machine to respond to human voice commands. And while Arthur C. Clarke, the renowned British science-fiction writer, once noted that any sufficiently advanced technologies are indistinguishable from magic, the true ‘magic’ of this technology has only been realised in the past few years.

Unlike in popular culture’s Star Trek, whose ship’s computer could interpret and respond to the crew’s spoken musings, in reality early voice recognition technologies were very limited in their capabilities, requiring massive amounts of initial input and programming. This tech finally came into its own with the advent of ‘deep learning’ and ‘natural language processing’, which enabled computer dictation to hit the consumer market in the early 2000s.

Now, almost two decades later, voice command is transforming computing with the most intuitive user interface we’ve ever known. From Siri and Cortana to Alexa, the technology for automatically detecting and interpreting what we say is progressing fast and becoming a part of modern life. At this point, it feels impossible for manual input systems to compete with this unstoppable force. But what does this mean for the future of work?

Hands-free multi-tasking

One of the key benefits of this technology is that it enables users to dictate, operate programmes and record data live, while performing other tasks. This helps companies save time and money by automating simple operations. Voice search can also cut-down on distractions and follow-up actions during meetings when used as a virtual assistant (artificial intelligence). In this way, it can access emails, the company intranet and wider internet to solve spoken queries, such as ‘where is the conference being held this year?’, or ‘where is last month’s profit and loss report saved?’. Meeting minutes can also be recorded and shared automatically, or calendar events booked and shared with all parties as soon as they are agreed.

Equal opportunities

Another important benefit of voice technology is its power to create opportunities for less able people, including those with disabilities or those suffering from debilitating conditions such as multiple sclerosis or rheumatoid arthritis. It can even assist people who suffer from conditions such as persistent migraines, who are unable to spend long periods looking at a screen, or people who have dyslexia and might find writing difficult.

Being able to type without a keyboard, or read and respond to emails without having to visually see them, will open business to a much broader and diverse work base. And of course, diversity in business carries numerous benefits. It fosters creativity and innovation and brings new perspectives.

Augmented collaboration

Allowing people to work together, focusing on the task at hand without having to worry about the administrative burden of note-taking and transcription, will improve collaboration and creativity.

What’s more, computer dictation and voice control can allow a geographically dispersed workforce to collaborate in real-time; personally and in a natural way that encourages a genuine team dynamic. Increasingly sophisticated language translation technology, such as Google’s ‘Pixel Buds’, released this autumn, go a step further and allow live language-to-language translation during conversations, removing a barrier which has traditionally been costly for businesses in the past.

Imagine how much a business could benefit from being able to negotiate face-to-face with a supplier or client on the other side of the world via a video conference, in their own native tongue. No more ‘lost in translation’ errors or costly misunderstandings. The latest developments in voice technology are fast making this dream a reality.

Workplace optimisation

Considering other future applications of this technology, it’s likely that we will see voice control integrated into building’s facilities systems, allowing users to adjust their work environment in the same way that consumers already do at home; brightening lights, playing music and adjusting temperature.

Various studies have proven a link between optimal workplace environments and employee wellbeing, happiness and productivity.

Voice technology is already transforming our home lives and changing the way we communicate, search for information and interact with our environments. We know from other technologies; smartphones and tablets or wearable fitness trackers for example, that consumer behaviour eventually filters through to business.

For businesses already pioneering the use of sophisticated intranets to improve communication, search, accessibility, knowledge sharing and operational efficiency, sophisticated voice recognition is the catalyst that will kick off the next generation of office evolution, beyond paperless, to the keyboard less office.