Could Amazon Echo improve life in a rural Indian village?
Raj Reddy likes to imagine a world where consumers can buy any product from anywhere, and computers are always listening.
He’s not describing a dystopia where consumerist computers take over the world. Instead, Reddy, an Indian-American computing pioneer who received the 1994 Turing Award, believes that inexpensive voice-activated computers could bring essential services to the illiterate and rural poor. They might not look like other computers: “No typing, no touching, no nothing,” he explains. But they have the potential to improve millions of lives.
Up to this point, computer scientists have invested a lot in voice computing. The best-known examples are Amazon Echo, a desktop voice computing device, and Siri, which is Apple’s “Speech Interpretation and Recognition Interface” for the iPhone.
The problem is, these kinds of software have been optimized for industrialized countries, and they’ve been developed almost exclusively for what Reddy calls “commercially-viable languages.” Amazon Echo is a desktop device, largely because of a technological challenge: “If they’re always listening to me, they run out of battery very quickly.” Meanwhile, software companies have focused on widely-spoken languages like English and Mandarin.
But Reddy points out that a person who’s already literate in a global language isn’t likely to rely extensively on voice computing. For speakers of a language like isiXhosa, Uhygur or Haitian, on the other hand, voice computing could become the simplest way to connect to new products and ideas. Accessible software can help bridge the “digital literacy divide.”
Reddy emphasizes that such technologies don’t need to be developed for charity’s sake. Take, for example, the fact that almost a billion people live on less than $2 per day. All those people share a need for affordable food, medicine, and household technologies. In other words, if mobile devices and e-commerce platforms adapt, the world’s poorest can spend billions of dollars per day—and connectivity could make necessities more affordable. 24-hour delivery is available in many cities; Amazon is currently testing 4-hour delivery in some places. Why can’t the same strategies bring e-commerce to rural villages in India?
More than technological advances, Reddy says, software companies need a new outlook. “I’m saying these companies have the wrong business model,” he explains. It wouldn’t take all that long to redesign Amazon Echo as a mobile device, or adapt Siri to new languages and inexpensive smart phones. “The technology exists,” he says. It simply needs to reach the people who need it.