Vocare, Voce, Vox, Voice!

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Essays

My name is Kanyi Maqubela, and one of my first spoken languages was Xhosa, the native tongue of the Eastern Cape region of South Africa. Xhosa is, along with Zulu and a handful of others, a rare language, in that it is both a *click* language, and a *tonal* language. The complexity of voice acrobatics required to fluently speak my language trip me up to this day. My mother reminds me that “ulele” can mean “are you sleeping?” “is he sleeping?” “he is sleeping” depending on the particular undulations. But to an untrained ear, they are indistinguishable. To that point, I have always had a sensitivity, and fascination, with the human voice.

I was reading about the work of Rébecca Kleinberger over the weekend, a PhD researcher at MIT who studies the human voice. As she describes it, the human voice may be the most intimate processing center for our brains. At as early as three weeks in utero, the first human sensory connection to the outside world comes from the vibrations of a mother’s voice. There are 100 muscles in the body that combine to produce the voice, and its turbulences, pitch, modulation of words, and breathiness provide extraordinary insights into our bodies and minds. Among the key evolutionary differences between a human and a chimpanzee is the descended larynx, and what we can do with our voice. But it gets even more interesting.

A series of studies, including one at University of Zadar in Croatia and another at University of Wyoming showed that a human can accurately identify where a woman is in her menstrual cycle based solely on her voice. Same goes for Parkinson’s. Coronary artery disease. Depression and other neurological disorders. And more. Based on Kleinberger’s research, she can identify the specific voice you use to talk to strangers, your mother, your spouse, your sibling, or your business partner. The human voice holds our evolution, identity, and the mysteries of the soul all within it.

I wrote, a few years ago, about how Minority Report was an incredibly impactful movie to me – and perhaps more broadly – in contemplating the near future. And indeed, in 2002 Minority Report came out, and by 2012, touch screens were the dominant consumer interface, cookie-based advertising personalized to the user was prevalent online. (The main reason it doesn’t also happen on physical billboards is because of video surveillance laws. The technology is there.) I want to talk briefly about the movie Her, the Spike Jonze movie which came out in 2013. The movie is set sometime in the near future, and a computer, famously voiced by Scarlett Johansson*, enters into a strangely intimate, beautiful relationship with Joaquin Phoenix. It’s startling in that it proposes an interface – basically, an Airpod (hi, Jordan) that is as rich, intimate, and expansive as anything you can imagine. There’s a point to all this, I promise.

The human voice is badly underutilized in internet-era UX and UI. It’s not quite “bring back the phone call”, though many of you (of a certain generation or older) must remember falling asleep on the phone with a summer crush. I would like to think that our near future won’t be a Siri and Alexa mediated world, but will honor the primacy and the power of the actual human voice. It tells us so much about the speaker, about their heart, their happiness, their secrets, much of which we receive subconsciously. It provides a perfect opportunity for more intimacy and heart in our technology. We have moved into an era where we stare at our screens for more and more of our relationships, and I want to make an appeal for the human voice.

To that end, holler at me if you have anything I can learn, any products I can test, or any people I can meet given the above.

*Incidentally, the original voice in ‘Her’ was played by Samantha Morgan, who also played Agatha in Minority Report. Just discovered that!

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