ADAPT Researchers Speak about Future of Voice Agents at AtlanTec Festival

28 May 2021

In May, ADAPT researchers Professor Ben Cowan, Assistant Professor at University College Dublin’s School of Information & Communication Studies, and Justin Edwards, joined a host of speakers to present at the AtlanTec Festival.  Appearing in a session of their own, the duo presented their research on digital voice assistants.  

Voice-based assistants have become a prominent platform for interaction. Yet they are currently limited in how they interact with users, waiting for the user to take the lead. This talk gave an insight into their research and explained how their work at the ADAPT Centre is making voice agents more proactive and how this may be transformative for voice agent design.  They also focused on the opportunities and interaction challenges involved in proactive agent interaction.  

Speaking at the event Associate Professor Ben Cowan said: “People see these agents as task executors. They find it hard to see them as something that they can collaborate with.  How we build agents is a real challenge for the future but change needs to occur if we are going to move speech agents into a different form of interaction that allows them to become a much more holistic modality for interaction.”

Voice Assistants are Ubiquitous 

Speaking at the event Justin Edwards said: “Voice assistants like Alexa, Siri, Google Assistant are embedded into everything from our phone, our computer, our microwave and our fridge.  In 2019 Microsoft found that 72% of respondents they interviewed had used a voice assistant before and they estimated that 75% of US households had at least one smart speaker.”  He went on to explain that voice interfaces are used differently by users than how we use our phone or our computer. It is another ‘dialogue partner’ where the role of the user bounces around and everyone is involved with the device.  However the devices are not conversational so the system is only giving back a limited response.  This raises some of the challenges with voice assistants and the research is looking at how they can be made more engaging, proactive and collaborative with users.

Virtual Collaborators

Research taking place at the ADAPT Centre is looking at how agents can be made more conversational. The future aims to develop and design cutting edge future digital technology interactions that will move the technology from virtual assistants to virtual collaborators.

Professor Ben Cowan’s research lies at the juncture between psychology, Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) and computer science in investigating how theoretical perspectives in human communication can be applied to understand phenomena in speech-based human-machine communication.

Justin Edwards is a PhD candidate at University College Dublin and a member of the ADAPT Centre. His research examines speech in multitasking environments, examining how people speak to machines when busy conducting other tasks and applying these insights to the design of system-initiated dialogue with conversational agents.

Full talk can be watched on YouTube.