back to article Alexa and her kind let the disabled or illiterate make the web work

The pell-mell rush to get everything connected and intelligent has led us into some dark corners. Robot vacuum cleaners that map your home - in order to faithfully fulfil your wishes for a clean residence - then sell your data to the highest bidder. Dolls that listen to a child, and share a bit too widely. That sort of thing. …

  1. Lee D

    Does anyone else find it amazing that in 2017, there are still people who are illiterate?

    The article doesn't mention it (Why? They couldn't read it!) but - unless you have a specific and recognised learning difficulty - why are there still people who avoid text?

    I work with a guy who has LITERALLY (sic) never read a book in his life. That just shocks me.

    However, though I'm sure Alexa/Siri/Cortana are useful, I'm always more concerned with - how does a person who relies on those kinds of technologies secure their account. Security and accessibility seem to be polar opposites.

    1. Prst. V.Jeltz Silver badge

      "I work with a guy who has LITERALLY (sic) never read a book in his life. That just shocks me."

      What shocks me is how proud of it they are: "IVE NEVER READ A BOOK IN ME LIFE, ME". often followed by "i'm too busy)

      I know a few . a fireman friend , a car painter , my girlfriend , her son . If you change "Literally never" for "only under duress , for school etc .. " , in fact you don't even have to do that - a high proportion of my generation, (40's), just don't read for pleasure, and have never read a book voluntarily , and that percentage has risen steadily ever since with the invention of other distractions.

      The only thing they've read are menus , roadsigns and instruction manuals and possibly the first and last pages of "The Sun".

      They just dont get it when forced to read , they count the pages , and mechanically read read the words , barely stringing them togther to comprehend the sentence , and definately not following the story . bitching about it the whole way "theres too many words!" " the lettters are too small" . Then you get protests of" I read a whole page and nothing happened" .

      Well fuck them. I'm never again going to try to explain the beauty of literature to these people. To be honest they dont need it , they can still be well rounded human beings , they're just oblivious to one of lifes pleasures and are missing out.

      You take a horse to water but you cant make it drink.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        "What shocks me is how proud of it they are: "IVE NEVER READ A BOOK IN ME LIFE, ME". often followed by "i'm too busy)"

        Or maybe their priorities are different. I used to read books for myself in years (but read every night to my kids, and have done for 9 years).

        However I CHOOSE not to read books, but at the same time, I don't sit in front of the TV. I'm usually doing the domestics, catching up on the absurd amount of correspondence from the schools or out with the kids doing boring stuff, such as exploring woodlands, building dens, playing in the park, ferrying them to sports clubs, doing crazy experiments, and just interesting things like education through fun.

        Don't judge people just because they choose not to follow your lifestyle.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        No, I believe it's:

        "You can lead a whore to culture, but you can't make her think."

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          I see the never ending search for a problem to go with the solution continues.........

    2. Naselus

      "Does anyone else find it amazing that in 2017, there are still people who are illiterate?"

      What I'd find more surprising is if illiterate people in 2017 are in well-enough paying jobs to buy Amazon Echo devices.

    3. Dave Bowman

      "Security and accessibility seem to be polar opposites"

      I think you misunderstand what accessibility means, which is understandable as not many people think of the needs of the 3%-10% (depending what you read) of people with some form of disability, when using the internet. It's like people assume a website will automatically resize from desktop to phone. Accessibility is seen as an overhead when it should be about good usability. Alexa and other voice interfaces could be really good for those with some form of impairment. How would you report a pothole to your local council with a keyboard and a screen reader? Compare that to voice reporting it.

  2. Prst. V.Jeltz Silver badge

    You'd think disabled people who cant get out much would have investigated the net years ago. You dont have to be a spelling bee champion.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      You right, because the web is full of standard complaint websites enabling those that are visually impared or missing arms / hands to whizz around with ease.

      1. Prst. V.Jeltz Silver badge

        It was a visually impaired person who taught me to use a computer without using a mouse.

        Different disabilities (or combinations of ) require different solutions .

        Having skimmed the article again i'm not sure what alexa's claiming credit for - inventing speech recognition?

    2. Nick Kew

      Well fancy that

      One of the Great Ideas driving the WWW was accessibility - liberating the disabled. From the talking web browser to the alternative input device for Granny Arthritic. Not to mention what it does for the housebound.

      It's over thirty years since my days in the Cambridge Maths department, and even back then Stephen Hawking's life and work were conspicuously assisted by both humans and technology.

    3. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

      You'd think disabled people who cant get out much would have investigated the net years ago.

      It's almost as if they were suffering from an impairment to their ability to do stuff - and that this was holding them back somehow...

      For example, braille is harder to use than text. It's slower to produce, slower to read, physically harder to do and takes up loads of space. My Mum is qualified as a VI teacher in her 40s - and has taught braille ever since. But she was never able to read it by feel - not a problem as she just looks. But many people who go blind later in life, also can't - and end up having to learn moon. Which uses bigger shapes - and thus takes up even more space. A blind kid I know did Lord of The Rings in English at school. It's a 13 volume book, each volume being 2' square and an inch thick.

      Speech and listening area also slower than typing and reading text. And create problems if you try to do them in noisy environments.

      Though you can now get a brilliant screenless laptop called a Braillenote (other brands may be available) which has either a 20 or 40 character braille display done with moving pins. But they are quite hard to use.

      A few years ago, a company created a satnav. Entirely voice interface. But the layers of menus required to get most sat navs to work how you want, meant that only the brightest blind people with the best memories could operate it. Nested menus are so much easier to navigate when you can see them / and don't have to hold the menu structure in your head. So what you can now get is a sat nav where it tells you where you are. Thus if you get on the right bus / train, you know where to get off. It is either programmed for a specific destination from your home PC, or you can press the save this location button - so you can navigate your way back somewhere.

      If you're deaf/blind then of course voice interfaces are bugger-all good to you.

      If you suffer from certain physical disabilities, then you're only going to get on the net voice-activated if you've got someone else to physically set up the system for you.

      Plus, as a general rule, some people are better at problem-solving than others. And that difference applies to disabled people as much as anyone else. They just have more problems they need to solve, and often less money/help to be able to solve them with.

  3. Anonymous Coward

    Great news for disabled folk...

    ...but anything that allows the illiterate to remain illiterate doesn't get approval from me.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Great news for disabled folk...

      How about those who are functionally illiterate because they have dyslexia? My stepson has severe dyslexia and struggles to read anything longer than a sentence. It takes him so much effort to actually read the words in a paragraph that by the time he gets to the end he often can't remember what it was actually about.

      He has found voice recognition and text-to-speech technologies an absolute life changer.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Great news for disabled folk...

        How about those who are functionally illiterate because they have dyslexia? My stepson has severe dyslexia and struggles to read anything longer than a sentence.

        I was thinking purely of the lazy illiterate; I would say that severe dyslexia to the level your stepson has is definitely a disability.

  4. Spiracle

    ...voice-activated servants are going to shake things up, by removing the need for advanced literacy...

    What could possibly go wrong?

  5. Warm Braw Silver badge

    Isn’t it better to ask Google or Alexa ... ?

    Let me rephrase that for you.

    Isn't it better to have the economic interests of a secretive international conglomerate determine the information to which you have access ... ?

    I suppose it depends on whether you think it's social progress to hope that those less blessed with literary and physical skills will be content to be distracted by cat videos and the miracle of light that can be turned on and off at will.

  6. Anonymous Coward

    Yes and no.

    Some systems already exist. Certain tools already exist in Windows 7 for example. But no one uses them, as the focus has never been on such broad usability.

    That and the money. It costs a lot to get it running well.

    A real life personal assistant can help to some extent. Though I'm still waiting for a neural net trained speech and screen recognition I can let run wild and just access anything I ask it to (though that could have some poor consequences :P ).

    1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

      Re: Yes and no.

      There are a lot more tools built into Windows and iOS than there ever used to be. It's only a decade since you have to have dedicated screen-readers, for example.

      And touch screens are great for some phyical disabilities. And also I'd imagine for cognitive / learning disabilities. The mental leap to press thing you want on screen in front of you to make it do stuff is much less than the extra layer of abstraction required to get a keyboard or mouse to interact with it.

      Also tech is putting specialist tools into everyone's hands. I briefly experimented at school with a CCTV system to enlarge work for me. That was about £3,000 of kit in the early 80s - and took up a considerable amount of the corner of the classroom. And the local education authority weren't about to pay for me to have one at home as well. As happens, for my level of sight, I've come to the conclusion that large print is too unweildy, and that 5x magnifiers on my reading glasses are the best way to work. But I now own a portable CCTV system, for which I paid the grand sum of £130. My 3 year old Lumia Windows phone - though obviously any smartphone with reasonable sized screen is equally capable. MS even do a specialist app now, though I've been using smartphone cameras and zoom to read menus/labels for years before that. Only a decade ago a portable CCTV with 6" screen was selling for £700.

      As the article states, some kind of specialist voice-controlled home-automation system was horrendously expensive a decade ago. Now it's becoming cheap consumer tech. Which also tends to mean its better made and easier to use than specialist kit aimed at selling (often via government). Hence my reading glasses are still a piss-poor design that requires being held together with tape (as they've been for the last 35 years), because the NHS buy them and don't do user-testing - and there's little profit in selling a few thousand units a year of something at £500.

  7. John Mangan

    Good article

    I confess I'm one of the people who would never have Alexa and its ilk in my house. I hate the idea of an always-on microphone which may not or (most probably) may be processing data unbeknownst to you and monitoring activity that you don't want monitored. I feel the same about cloud-based home automation. The ex-filtrated data, the security and the "we've lost interest now, enjoy your brick" experience.

    But, I confess, I hadn't thought of all those people who might (apparently do) find these to be truly enabling technologies.


  8. inmypjs Silver badge


    After reading that I had to scroll back and check it really wasn't annotated with sponsored.

    Yes if I were disabled voice input would be useful but I am not and simply do not consider the minor convenience worth the required loss of privacy.

  9. Mark 85 Silver badge

    The longer I look at Alexa, the less I see a first-world toy and the more I see a universal tool, that’s meant for everyone, everywhere.

    Spot on. Hopefully, Google won't kill it of off or "improve it" to the point of uselessness. They've done this before due to problems, lack of interest, or lack of profitability. Not trying to be pessimistic but Google being Google and their history.

    1. mathew42

      I think it would be great to take it to the next level for those people who can only communicate through boards with pictures on them. Imagine a large tablet with a camera that followed eye movements. Being digital would mean that it could highlight the selection and provide context sensitive options.

      Voice recognition for someone with a speech impairment would be challenging, but if liberating if it could be made to work.

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