Our Prediction for 2018: The Year of Voice

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Hello, and happy new year!

As we think about our work in the area of measuring human communication, we can’t help but notice the massive shift happening in people’s behavior as we start to use voice more than fingers to communicate with and through technology.

So what’s our prediction for 2018? It’s the year of the voice.

And that prediction is based on four major trends we’re observing:

  1. Voice-enabled assistants are everywhere.
  2. People prefer talking over typing.
  3. Voice is finally starting to break into social media.
  4. Podcasting is exploding.

From a research perspective, why are we seeing this? Voice has tone, it has personality, it’s more human, and it has clearer authorship than writing, making fake news harder to sneak in. In short, voice helps people connect in a way that black-and-white text does not.

Our vocal cords certainly aren’t new technology. After all, voice is perhaps the oldest method of human communication. So what’s driving these trends? A proliferation of new technologies that make it easier and more efficient to share information and accomplish tasks verbally are helping society rediscover its collective voice.

The biggest players in the movement? Siri, Alexa, and all their friends.

Over the past year, the use of voice-enabled assistants in the United States took off, and it’s expected to grow by another 130 percent in 2018 as an anticipated 35.6 million Americans adopt Alexa, Siri, or Google Home. We used to turn to our web browsers every time we had a question, but now, speaking is even easier than clicking.

What’s fascinating, though, is the way our new reliance on voice has begun to trickle into other aspects of our lives.

A report from Invoca found that, as voices surpass keyboards in generating search engine traffic, people are using their voices more in other situations, as well. 24 percent of survey respondents are making more phone calls to businesses, 35 percent are making more phone calls to friends and family, and half of millennials say they’ve been looking down at their phones less since starting to use a voice assistant.

Could this signal a return to voice as the core of human communication?

In recent decades e-mail, instant messenger, texting, and applications like Slack have made us largely reliant on writing for our personal and professional communication.

But, as anyone who’s found himself in an argument based on a misinterpreted tone in an e-mail or text message can vouch, when we rely on writing, we often lose the emotional connection that is the foundation of effective communication. A curt “OK” in text speak may put the recipient on edge, even if the sender meant his reply to be chipper.

Everyone knows that, when you have a miscommunication over e-mail or Slack, you’re supposed to pick up the phone. That’s because we understand each other better when we can hear each other, because we can more clearly pick up on the tones and emotions behind the messages.

And there’s a neurological reason for that:

When we use our voices to communicate with one another (and even more when we communicate in person), we experience “emotional contagion.” This is the idea that we can “catch” the feelings and moods of the people we’re talking with. Recall the last excited phone call you received: the person on the other end was likely speaking quickly, and maybe at a slightly higher pitch than usual. You could feel her excitement, and you started getting amped up, yourself.

That’s emotional contagion, and no amount of exclamation points in an e-mail can have the same effect.

With businesses on board, audio will soon be the new normal.

It’s not just the Siris and Alexas of the world that are encouraging us to go vocal. Along with Google and Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, and others are investing heavily in voice recognition, and the market for these technologies is expected to grow to more than $18 billion by 2023.

Before we know it, AI-enabled voice recognition will be the default way we interact with technology, whether we’re banking, buying groceries, or asking Google to call our friends so we can talk to them “the old-fashioned way.”

Of course, this “new age of voice” will improve communication in many ways.

We’ve seen already how voice will help us understand each other better and create more authentic connections—and spend less time, money, and angst clarifying miscommunications. But it will also make us more efficient. On average, we can speak 125 to 175 words per minute, while we can only type 38 to 40 words per minute—and even fewer on a mobile keyboard.

It seems like a no-brainer, doesn’t it? To get an answer to a simple question or make an important decision, it’s quicker to pick up the phone—and you get the tone behind the type.

And it will be a goldmine for marketers.

After all, the more data companies can collect from our calls with customer service reps, our interactions with audio chatbots, and the countless questions we ask Alexa every day, the better they can tailor advertising and sales follow-ups to their audience’s unique, specific needs.

But it will likely raise as many questions as it answers.

We’ve already begun addressing concerns over privacy with our virtual assistants’ always-on microphones, but as we produce more and more data through voice interactions on more and more platforms, how will we regulate what companies can and can’t do with our information?

Further, while a return to voice over text may initially slow the proliferation of fake news, as AI begins to sound more and more human, it will be as easy to manipulate voice—and even video—as it is to counterfeit text. In fact, platforms like Adobe Tech and Descript, which calls itself “the world’s first audio word processor,” are already on their way.

It’s funny, isn’t it, that the latest advances in technology are reigniting a desire to connect by voice?

Certainly, this modern twist on an older method of communication will require some thought and regulation in terms of data privacy and security, but we’re excited to see individuals and businesses alike improve their communication and build stronger connections by harnessing the power of voice.

Our hope is that, through innovation in human machine interfaces, society will embrace technology as a means to improved human connection in 2018.