Littérature  SF

From Dark Roots to Shared Routes

, Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society

The Forgotten History of Voice Operated Programming — Digital Geographic Magazine, Friday, march 4, 2041

Today we talk to our computers like we talk to our friends. But merely twenty years ago, there was no such thing as talking computers. All we had were crude, racially biased voice assistants. This month, our Tech & Society Column tells the story of the technology at the heart of the talking computer revolution: voice-operated programming. Without it, our talking computers could barely handle food deliveries and ticket bookings. There is much to say about the implications of voice-operated programming for the socio-economic context of our century, its major crises, and its landmark regulations. The history of voice-operated programming is worth remembering as we reflect on the misuses of technology and the political courage it takes to steer technology towards greater purposes.

A long time ago, the term “computer” used to refer to a human, someone doing computations the old way, with paper and pen. The term “programmer” also used to refer to a human, someone writing programs the old way, with keyboard and mouse. Now the craft of computer programming has been automated thanks to voice-operated programming (VOP). We can carry out almost any task by simply talking to our computers. Our voice operators find and execute the programs we need and write the programs that are missing. We barely need to move a finger anymore, for a click or a keystroke. Operating computers with our voice is much healthier: no more slouching and broken backs, but improved breathing and blood oxygen balance. And operating computers is also more accessible than ever, as voice operators can rapidly adapt to understand many accents and dialects. An incredible diversity of people, including children, can design and operate their own information systems. VOP has been deemed “the most empowering technology of the century” that has “greatly improved the autonomy and efficiency of millions of workers” and “unleashed the creativity of human kind” (OECD, Development Co-operation Report, 2039).
However, few of us remember the dark side of VOP history. It stemmed from the evils of surveillance capitalism, from technologies that compromised our democracy. Let’s explore the difficult truths behind the genesis of VOP and reflect on the ethical and political issues of its past … and present.

Genesis to hoax and to coax

Twenty years ago, deep fake technologies were plaguing the internet. They were used to forge videos of politicians and manipulate elections, but also to tweak advertisements to target our specific psychological profiles. Neuromarketing companies could generate highly personalized ads, videos, and even newspaper articles without any human actually writing or shooting them. Their fabricated texts and videos had a cunning realism and a strong power of influence. For political campaigns, the fakes targeted those who could vote for political opponents. They were designed to break the voter’s trust and the politician’s decorum.

[…] In 2024, the US presidential election was gravely biased by a disinformation campaign. […] This deep fake scandal was a historical crisis that outraged citizens all over the world. The technologies at play drew the attention of lawyers, AI experts, policy makers, scholars, hackers, and journalists. In an unusual synergy of multiple disciplines, they carefully scrutinized other uses of deep fakes. They soon uncovered another deceitful technology: social language modelling (SLM). This technology can adapt the tone of texts to mimic the language of a person’s social circle. It can produce marketing or political messages that sound like our friends or family members. Who could resist buying clothes that are recommended by someone just like your partner? Or voting for politicians endorsed by someone just like your best friend? The discovery of social language modelling and the technology it relied on, provided by a group of hackers who operated through a shell company named Sheepshape, was a major scandal.

[…] The following investigation eventually led to an anonymous source leaking the SLM technology to the public in 2026. Which in turn enabled SLM to spread into most marketing campaigns, but this time the language models were trained using public data from social media. On the bright side, the leak also enabled great innovations that improved voice interfaces. It also prompted the adoption of crucial regulations. In 2031, the United Nations Security Council announced a ban on blacklisted AI for public influence purposes on the grounds that such manipulative AI systems threaten human dignity and autonomy. […] The models and algorithms in question were published and documented to enable public scrutiny and international cooperation. Hackers and academics soon repurposed these back-alley monsters of neuro-marketing and gave birth to the first talking computers. Back then, we did not imagine the coming revolution, just as we did not imagine the internet revolution in the twentieth century.

From sound to sound: the rise of talking computers

Talking machines are an old human fantasy. For ancient Greeks, the god Hephaestus crafted automatons that mimicked humans or animals. Interestingly, he also crafted Pandora and her box. The first talking machines appeared thousands of years after those ancient myths. And they did not live up to our expectations. They made countless errors and misunderstood many populations with accentsthat did not comply with some arbitrary standards. Unexpectedly, deep fake and SLM technologies were the missing pieces. They made talking computers able to understand each user’s way of talking, with different pronunciations and vocabularies. Talking computers
became highly personalized, almost perfectly tailored to their individual users. Their errors became rare and easy to correct. We grew more and more comfortable talking with computers; it became like talking with familiar colleagues.
Voice operators, as they are formally called, have completely transformed our ways of living. Voice-ops, as we usually call them, handle much more than computations. More than the world of data and programs, they now handle a large part of our intellectual world. They read and write our books as well as our computer code. They are our curators, our secretaries, and at times, our companions.

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