Siri is not just some anonymous computer that speaks. She’s a recognizable voice and personality in our lives. She’s Apple incarnate, chatting with an unmistakable cadence and tenor–the combination of the efforts of voice actor Susan Bennett and engineers piecing her phonemes together. But what if Siri didn’t have to be voiced by Siri. What if she could be voiced by anyone in your life? Your friend? Your spouse? Your child?
Apple isn’t crowdsourcing Siri anytime soon–but the Google-owned driving app Waze is. With its new iOS and Android apps, anyone can record their version of Waze’s stock turn-by-turn driving directions, then share them for anyone else to use.
Waze is pushing the hashtag #NextWazeVoice, encouraging an “anyone can be famous!” American Idol-style phenomenon with the new feature. It will also partner with YouTube Creators to produce and distribute custom voice packs. In other words, it’s making voice into a way to leverage influencer culture within the user interface of its product.
Waze has toyed with this phenomenon in the past with celebrity-led promotions. Kevin Hart, C3PO, and even T-Pain have all lent their voices to Waze’s turn-by-turn directions. But these promotions don’t have anywhere near the scale of what Waze is proposing today. The company is moving beyond a few one-off projects, to build something more akin to an app store or social network full of unique computer voices.
Right now, for Waze, even that grand idea only manages to encompass about a dozen recordings of a few seconds apiece. However, it illustrates how Waze is envisioning the future of voice assistants–a future that looks very different than the one most of us imagine populated by Siri, Cortana, or Alexa. Rather than a world in which we all talk to two or three different chatbots on a regular basis, we could talk to dozens. Skinnable voices could expand that number exponentially; even if the core AI is still run by Google or Apple, the voices, tones, and personalities of our interfaces may be as customized as the cell-phone ringtones of the mid-aughts.
However, unlike those silly ringtones, voice UI comes with additional emotional weight. People have become extremely attached to these virtual voices. For instance, in 2010 Waze removed one of its celebrity voice packs from Dateline anchor Keith Morrison. Users piled on in revolt. In retrospect, of course they did. Humans innately trust computers that speak. We become emotionally attached to robotic companions. You can only imagine how much more devastating it would be if Waze had deleted your son’s voice off your phone, instead of some celebrity.
Which is all to say that Waze is onto something bigger than it looks here; this seemingly gimmicky promotion could have ramifications that will play out far beyond the “turn left here!” instructions of its popular driving app.
The Siri of tomorrow won’t be voiced by an anonymous freelancer. It will be the person you hate-stalk on Instagram, the comedian on your favorite underground podcast, or, quite possibly, the people closest to you.