Death of the Keyboard? Let’s Ask Alexa.

Radio Shack TRS-80

I have written often about my vision of the future of computer hardware and software. One thing I am certain of is that today’s computer state-of-the-art will not be the same the state-of-the-art in a few years. Just ask anyone who owns a Radio Shack TRS-80 computer with data storage on audio cassette tapes or anyone who has a collection of floppy disks or even CD-ROM disks. In that vein, I was interested in a recent survey which predicts that computer keyboards are already being replaced in many cases by voice input.

A survey conducted by Pindrop Solutions queried 4057 consumers in the UK, USA, France, and Germany. According to the survey, nearly half (48 percent) of the general public think keyboards will barely be used by 2023 as voice technology takes over. That’s just four years away.

You can read more about the recent Pindrop Solution survey, the lack of keyboards in future computers, and even watch a video about the same subjects, in an article by Greg Nichols on ZDNet‘s web site at https://zd.net/2IFHP0q.

Of course, I never believe one article, so I went looking for a second opinion. I asked Alexa (Amazon’s Echo device). Seeking a third opinion, I asked Google Home (Google’s competitor to Alexa). Still not satisfied, I also asked the GPS navigation system in my automobile that is voice-controlled.

OK, so I didn’t exactly receive clear predictions from any of these computer devices; but, all of them are excellent examples of the direction in which our computing devices are headed. I see four obvious trends: one about voice input replacing keyboards and three other closely-related predictions.

1. Keyboards are becoming less and less popular. New computing devices that depend less on keyboards are therefore becoming more and more popular. While some growth in voice input has occurred on Windows, Macintosh, and Chromebook systems, the largest growth of voice input has been on both mobile computing devices (cell phones, iPad and other tablets, in-automobile uses such as GPS) and similar computing devices that are not used for “traditional” programs like word processing, spreadsheets, and similar operations.

2. Expensive, general-purpose computers (Windows, Macintosh, Linux, etc.) are becoming less and less popular in the home. Instead, these are being supplemented or sometimes even replaced by cheaper, single-purpose computers designed only for specific tasks. The surge of Chromebooks has proven the interest in cheaper devices that still provide many of the traditional programs, now offered online, but many of these now provide touchscreen input, just like tablets and smartphones. Even more telling, you can purchase a Google Home Mini for about $40, an Amazon Echo Dot (Alexa) for about $40, and voice-controlled GPS devices for $150 or so. Yet all of these are computers. The difference is that these low-cost computers are designed for limited tasks, not for “general purpose” applications such as spreadsheets, word processing, and other traditional computer applications. Owners of such devices can simply ask their computers to perform common tasks like setting a thermostat or timer, building a shopping list, getting the daily news or weather, and finding the best route to a given destination.

3. Voice control of Windows, Macintosh, and Chromebook computers as well as smartphones already exists. For instance, look at Siri, Cortana, Google Docs, Microsoft Word, Google Voice Typing, Dragon Naturally Speaking, and a number of other products that already convert spoken words into computer commands and text. Today’s smartphones (primarily iPhones and Android phones) already have extensive voice input capabilities.

Comment: I grew to love Dragon Naturally Speaking a few years ago when I slipped on wet ice, fell forward, and broke both arms. I “wrote” this newsletter through the use of Dragon Naturally Speaking’s voice-to-text conversion for several weeks while both arms were in casts.

4. Connections to the cloud are more and more commonplace, and that coverage obviously will become more and more popular every year as the internet continues to expand. More and more devices are now cloud-connected. The result is the computing-intensive tasks, such as converting spoken words into computer commands and text, can be “off-loaded” to very powerful artificial intelligence systems in the cloud with the converted commands and text then returned to the inexpensive cloud-connected devices. The result is cheaper computers for consumers and computing providers alike.

After all, you don’t want to use a $20,000 server in your home to turn the lights off and on. However, thousands of $50 cloud-connecting computing devices in thousands of homes, connected to a single $20,000 server in a remote data center, can be very cost-effective when the expenses are distributed across thousands of users. This is the business model behind Google Home, Amazon Echo Dot (Alexa), Siri, Cortana, and other voice input computing devices.

In short, voice input applications are supplementing and (in some cases) replacing the old-fashioned keyboard-input applications. Indeed, keyboards may someday join floppy disks, CD-ROM disks, and 80-column punch cards in the local computer museum. This probably will happen whether we want it or not.

Did you ever see the Star Trek episode where Scotty encounters a computer from the 1990s, picks up the mouse of that computer, then speaks to the mouse saying, “Hello computer?” The process didn’t work very well for Scotty.

That still remains science fiction today, but we all are getting closer and closer to voice input-controlled computing devices that have no need for keyboards.

Will the conversion happen overnight? Probably not. It will be slowly integrated into our lives.

Will voice input ever completely replace keyboards? Again, I would say probably not, at least not for a long time yet. However, in many cases, using voice input is easier and safer than using keyboards. For example: I don’t want to be typing on a keyboard while traveling on a superhighway at 70 miles per hour when I need to find where the next rest stop or gas station is located. Voice input is far safer. Voice input is a great idea for many applications although perhaps not for all of them.

Is the slow disappearance of keyboards a good thing? I think so. Then again, I never did learn to touch-type! I much prefer voice input.

24 Comments

There are some of us who prefer keyboards vs. voice activation.
There’s more than enough hacking going on…let’s open it up even farther!!! (By the way, had voice activation, etc., been the rule, I’d have been cooked! Three of us, in my immediate family, sounded alike: even close family/friends & business people could NOT tell us apart. “Alexa” could??)
NOT saying this could not occur, but do wonder….

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Very timely, Dick. My daughter uses voice to send emails in her car, and I’m happily expanding my uses for Alexa Dot. A hand injury year ago prevents my use of touch typing, so I eagerly look forward to AI improvements that provide punctuation while dictating. I find it very distracting to have to stop to insert punctuation. Formatting issues are easy to fix in post processing. The future is here.

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I have worn out about a dozen keyboards since I started generating dozens of long texts daily at work, starting in 1983. My current main laptop, purchased in 2010, is now on its 3rd keyboard. Voice input is still far too imprecise for this kind of text production. I have a very nice voice actuated GPS with dash cam, but it almost never is able to recognize my voice while I am driving an interstate at 70 mph. However, one phrase it does recognize is “rest area” for which I am very grateful.

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A few months ago I was listening to an audio ghost story on my home audio system. Alexa heard something in the sound stream she recognized, and responded with a particularly inappropriate and ghostly remark. Scared the daylights out of me!

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The makers of devices like Alexa have already admitted to listening in on private conversations. We have no idea who is listening in or what they’re doing with what they hear. I’d rather keep what goes on in my house and car private, thank you.

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I don’t believe it. Nothing will be capable of accurately replacing my full size keyboard for the tasks that I need to perform in the forseeable future, meaning decades.

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I would not know how to use voice activation.  I am an older person, yes, but am glad that I had keyboard typing training at school and passed RSA exams in typing.   I enjoy being a touch typist.
Joy Dean (Mrs)

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I’m very impressed with Alexa but I can’t see it replacing a real keyboard if nay degree of accuracy is needed.

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Fat chance! Not as long as the balant discrimination against the deaf remains.

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I will be the dinosaur using the keyboard. I disabled Alexa. I found her intrusive and I didn’t (don’t) like that Google can’t stop trying to make me use her. Her icon pops up everywhere.

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I have a voice disability. People can understand me in person but automated systems on phones do not. It is maddening. I hope I always have a keyboard option.

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I have a heavy Texas accent and have sent several “rude” messages by accident when I let the microphone interpret me on the phone, and, truthfully, Siri never get’s it right.

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I am concerned about those who cannot speak or hear, but can see what they are doing. I received one of those “gadgets” when I purchased my new cell. It’s still in the box it came in. Technology continues to grow, but not everyone can and will use it unless its all there is!

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    —> I am concerned about those who cannot speak or hear, but can see what they are doing.

    How about those people who are blind or have major vision problems?

    I read an article a while ago (I don’t remember where) that claimed that the Amazon Echo (Alexa) and similar devices are very popular amongst blind people.

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My experience with using voice on the computer was it is necessary to have a keyboard to go over the message and make the corrections. Perhaps if you spoke very very slowly and carefully it might work better. However we are not accustomed to speaking slowly, slowly. The message can be pretty funny when you read it. Just like talking to my husband and the response is really hilarious. I know he didn’t hear what I said, only what
he thought I said.

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    Thanks, I needed a laugh this morning. From a husband … you’re so right. I’ve learned over the years that if husbands listen instead of trying to talk over their wives, they understand much more.

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Lynn McAlister, MA, FSA Scot April 24, 2019 at 12:30 pm

I think this is another example of the modern misconception that ‘advancement’ and ‘improvement’ are inevitably the same thing. As with ebooks, I think the drawbacks will prevent this new technology from rendering the old obsolete. Everybody having to speak out loud to accomplish anything will make for very noisy libraries, classrooms, work spaces, and homes. And until there’s some way for *me* to decide who’s listening in on me (and know that my decision is respected), I’ll be sticking to my keyboard.

Liked by 1 person

Great! I have enough trouble with my Nav. system in my car understanding my Southern accent. Sometime I have to repeat things over and over until I end up screaming at the darn thing. I can just imagine what some AI device would type for me.

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I am 81 years old and I love to dictate to my cell phone and iPad instead of using those Itty bitty keys. I’m an excellent typist and I prefer a full-size keyboard for heavy tasks. I also love my Alexa. Usually she can answer my questions such as how old an actor is or the population of the world. She can be frustrating though when she can’t answer the simplest question.

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They’ll have to pry my keyboard and mouse from my cold dead hands! Just sayin 😉

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I disbled Siri because she kept responding to the voices in newscasts and advertisements playing over the radio and interrupting my device’s live-stream programs. Certain regional accents are notoriously incompatible with voice recognition software, as illustrated in this sketch: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=eYpLyrPKU78

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    G – LOL. Thanks. I’m quite sure Siri hasn’t been programmed to understand all 24 dialects spoken in the U.S. Plus languages spoken by various Indian tribes. Then add everyone from overseas.

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And so they traded carpal tunnel syndrome for vocal overuse strain. Me, I like my desktop with my giant wide monitor and my classic IBM-style clicky-key keyboard (https://www.pckeyboard.com/page/FeaturedProducts/UB40P4A).

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