Talking to Cars

A novelty, necessity or something else?

By Gary S. Vasilash

“Computer, tea, Earl Grey, hot.” So said Captain Jean-Luc Picard when he was in the need of a hot beverage on Star Trek: The Next Generation.

And the computer would orchestrate things such that he would be able to get a delicious drink.

If you think about it, it makes perfect sense for there to be a voice-activated interface on a starship, especially in the mess. After all, things like boiling water and whatnot would go on behind the scenes, anyway. Back in 1987, when the show premiered, people were using the Commodore Amiga and the 3.5-inch floppy disc had its start. Talking to a computer was certainly science fiction back then.

Now, as everyone is equipped with a computer that they keep in their pocket or purse—assuming that it is not in their hand—talking to the object is not given much of a second thought.

Of course, the device will tell you when The Next Generation aired or what the weather is. It will not provide you with a cup of tea.

I thought about the novelty of talking to an inanimate object when seeing a television ad for the Volvo XC40 Recharge, an electric vehicle.

One of the features of the car is Google Assistant. In the ad, the driver says “OK Google, turn up the temperature.”

If you think about it, Picard altered the computer with “Computer,” then went to the category (tea), type (Earl Grey) and condition (hot). Today it would be “Computer a cup of hot Earl Grey,” perhaps. Far more natural language.

But there is something about the ability to have a voice activated control of an HVAC system in an SUV and ordering a drink on a starship.

When you are behind the wheel of an XC40 Recharge, the ability to adjust the temperature is not even an arm’s length away. It is a simple act. Simpler than boiling water.

It almost seems as a pointless execution of a technological capability. Yes, you can do it. But do you need to?

One could make the argument—and it is a just one—that by having the ability to use voice commands in lieu of reaching over to make an adjustment is beneficial from a safety point of view: the driver maintains control of the steering wheel with both hands. Which is an absolutely good thing.

Of course, the reality is probably closer to someone using their hand to hold a cup from Starbucks, which probably doesn’t contain tea.

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