How Voice Tech Is Creating a Less Dangerous World

From providing home security to hands-free access to emergency services, voice tech is developing into a key component for safety. Here’s how.

Written by Tobias Dengel
Published on Oct. 13, 2023
How Voice Tech Is Creating a Less Dangerous World
Image: Shutterstock / Built In
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One of the tell-tale signs that a new technology will become transformative is that use cases emerge that were not planned or even imagined during its initial development. For voice, safety is on that list. 

4 Ways Voice Tech Is Being Used to Improve Safety

  1. Automated assistants can call emergency responders through voice commands.
  2. Voice components are added to apps to add clarity during an emergency.
  3. Automated assistants can listen for alarms or intruders to call for help.
  4. Voice technology can provide medical reminders and daily check-ins for seniors.   

Quite unexpectedly, everyone from the manufacturers of the most complex machinery in the world — airplanes — to quick-thinking individuals in danger are discovering that voice technology can be used to make many activities safer. And this discovery, in turn, is opening up new competitive and strategic possibilities for companies that take advantage of the potentialities of voice.

 

How Voice Tech Can Improve Safety

If the idea that voice technology can increase safety seems counterintuitive, consider the fact that there are people alive today who owe their survival to voice tech.

On December 10, 2019, eighteen-year-old Gael Salcedo was on his way to class at North Iowa Area Community College in Mason City, Iowa. It was a frigid winter morning, the temperature barely touching 10 degrees Fahrenheit. Suddenly Gael’s Jeep hit a patch of ice and skidded completely off the road. Within seconds, the car was window-deep in the Winnebago River — and sinking fast.

“Everything just went blurry,” Gael recalls. “I didn’t know where I was going and I didn’t know what to do. I was just thinking, ‘I’m going to die.’”

Badly disoriented, Gael had no idea where his smartphone was. But his survival instinct kicked in. “Hey Siri,” he yelled, “Call 911!” The automated assistant heard Gael’s voice and responded instantly, sending his distress call and location data to the nearest emergency center.

Within a few minutes, firefighters were on the scene. The rising river current pinned shut the door on the driver’s side of the car, making the rescue especially complicated. But working from the back compartment of the vehicle, Lieutenant Craig Warner managed to extricate Gael and help him get through the icy water to shore. After being treated for shock at the hospital, Gael was released just three hours later—feeling lucky to be alive.

When people think about voice technology, they understandably focus on the benefits it offers in terms of efficiency, productivity and convenience. But there’s an even more critical value that voice tech serves — namely, the need for personal safety. As the story of Gael Salcedo suggests, voice can make a hazardous activity like driving on an icy highway dramatically safer, saving lives in cases like Gael’s and making sure that thousands of other potentially deadly accidents never occur in the first place.

What’s more, stories like Gael’s just scratch the surface of what voice tech can do to make our lives safer. People in hundreds of industries work with complicated, powerful machinery every day: transportation, military, health care, factories, warehousing, agriculture, and energy are just a few examples. For workers in these fields, voice technology offers practical advantages that can literally make the difference between life and death.

Today, voice tech companies are busily creating tools to take full advantage of this unexpected capability. The years to come will likely see a flood of safety-oriented voice tech applications, some of which we can barely imagine now.

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Why Voice Tech Is Poised to Improve Safety

Voice technology is poised to deliver breakthroughs in safety in a myriad of ways. The reason is simple: Most of the risks involved in modern technology are driven by the difficulties we often have when seeking to communicate with or control machines or digital devices. 

When powerful technology is being used, small flaws in the design of a user interface can be deadly. When the operator of a machine doesn’t quickly and fully understand what is happening, or when it takes a few seconds too long to transmit clear instructions to the device through buttons, keyboards, levers or pedals, emergencies can easily spin out of control.

Those who design and implement technology recognize these dangers. As machines have become increasingly integrated into daily life and work over the last several generations, engineers have gradually developed ways to make the powerful machines surrounding us safer, from power steering, power brakes and seat belts in the cars we drive to warning lights, two-hand control devices and emergency shut-off switches on the assembly lines where we operate powerful equipment. The advent of voice technology is adding an important new set of tools to this effort.

The story of Gael Salcedo shows how this change is already having an impact on our daily lives. Today’s smartphones and computerized apps are increasingly being equipped with emergency features that use voice to add clarity and save precious seconds when emergencies are being dealt with. These tools make it possible for a user to summon emergency rescue health care assistance in seconds even when they are too disabled or disoriented to use keypad controls or other conventional devices.

Sound of the Future book jacket
The Sound of the Future book cover. | Image: Hachette Book Group

For example, Visiting Angels is a Florida-based company that provides home care service to seniors across the United States who may have physical or mental disabilities. In 2021, the company unveiled a new proprietary system called Constant Companion that uses a current smart speaker system (Amazon’s Echo Dot, with voice assistant Alexa) to offer emergency protection to elders in need. When an accident or medical problem arises, the senior can summon help just by asking for it. This is a breakthrough for older folks who may struggle to use a conventional cell phone, especially if they suffer from dementia or other disabling conditions. 

Seniors also prefer the voice-activated system because it eliminates the need for wearable push-button devices that are easy to forget or misplace, and that make the wearers “feel old.” The service works on its own network, separate from Amazon’s, to ensure compliance with the privacy rules required by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). And beyond safety in times of emergency, Constant Companion’s voice-tech system offers other benefits, from medicine reminders and daily phone check-ins (if requested) to music and audio books. 

Seniors aren’t the only people being protected by the new voice-powered safety tools. A number of home security services are now emerging that provide new levels of convenience and flexibility using voice. Alexa Guard, for example, listens for unusual sounds while you’re away from home — the noise made by an intruder or a smoke detector — and can automatically alert you while also calling for rescue services. When you return home, you can simply announce, “I’m back,” whereupon the system recognizes your voice and switches to a lower level of surveillance.

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Future of Voice Tech Safety Applications

In the years to come, the spread of voice tech will help make countless everyday activities safer. Your business, your employees, and the customers you serve can all benefit from this change — and the sooner it happens, the better.

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Excerpted from The Sound of the Future: The Coming Age of Voice Technology, by Tobias Dengel with Karl Weber. Copyright © 2023. Available from PublicAffairs, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

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