Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

What do Siri, Google Home, Amazon Echo and Alexa have to with Genealogy?

The answer to the question posed in the title of this post is simply this: almost nothing! I have recently written about my long involvement with voice recognition or VR software and since my latest return to using this software, I continue to be impressed with the improvements in the software's accuracy and utility. However, VR software, such as Dragon Dictate on my Apple devices, is not the same as the voice command devices listed in the title to this post.

Genealogy is a highly involved and complex pursuit involving intense research into historical documents. Part of the research process involves documenting and recording our discoveries. Some genealogists also spend a great deal of time teaching, writing and presenting online and in person. These activities could be done with a piece of paper and pencil, but over the years most writers have moved first to typewriters and then to computers. When I first started practicing law, my father, who was also an attorney, wrote everything out by hand on sheets of yellow paper. When my father retired from the practice of law after nearly fifty years of active practice, he was still writing almost everything he did on yellow sheets of paper with a pencil. When I started, I used voice dictation equipment. I would speak into the dictation machine, actually a specialized voice recording device, and then an assistant (used to be called a secretary) would transcribe the tapes by typing out the words. Then I would review the transcription and make changes and then it would be retyped, sometimes several times. If copies were needed we used carbon paper.

When I had been practicing law for a few years, technology began to develop in the form of expensive and rather massive "word processing" devices, such as the Wang Word Processor. Lawyers were not in the forefront of those adopting new technology. But I was fascinated by the possibility that I could speed up the process of producing written documents. This could turn into a long story. To summarize, I tried every level of word processing program that developed. I tried to get the other attorneys around me to change and finally, after nearly thirty years of practicing law, many attorneys had started to use computers in their document processing activities, but most relied on their legal assistants and were still dictating documents.

Now, fast forwarding to today, I write even more than I did during my law practice and I am still looking for ways to be faster and more productive. Voice recognition software has the promise of achieving more productivity and greater speed, but it is still, even with the advances, more like a cranky and willful child than an experienced assistant. Right now, for example, I am using my keyboard to type this post. Why aren't I using voice recognition? Because I have a cold and cannot talk. Hmm. There seems to be something missing here with the whole technology advancing aspect of our modern world.

Now, what about voice controlled devices? Obviously, they are a boon to those with limited mobility. But don't mistake these devices for advances in productivity. They are billed as convenience devices. My experience with Apple's Siri is an example of why these devices do not assist me as a genealogical researcher. The Siri program simply cannot do anything I need done. I do know a lot of people who use voice command devices regularly. I just don't happen to see the need. I can turn on lights with a switch and not have to think about the process. I do not want my devices talking to me and distracting me from my work. I have enough interruptions as it is.

In analyzing the whole development of voice controlled devices, I am reminded of the time when the more affluent members of our society had human servants. As genealogists, we are reminded of this every time we discover a family on a census record with one or more seemingly unrelated family members who are sometimes identified as servants or farm laborers. I come from a more independent background. I would rather do for myself. The main reason I like computers and the internet is that they actually do something productive, not just something convenient. They are tools that extend my own capabilities.

To illustrate what I mean, I would refer you to the complete list of Amazon's Alexa commands. See "The complete list of Alexa command so far." If you look at what this "amazing" device can do, the commands fall into several categories: turning off and on music or media, telling you the time and date, recording lists, turning on news and weather, finding restaurants or simple questions about music, doing simple math, asking about sports, ordering from Amazon.

Now, if you want to spend thousands of dollars, you can also have these devices connected to even more "smart" devices and run the lights, heating and cooling and other parts of your home.

Guess what? None of those things help me to do anything I need done. Not one of those things help me with my genealogical research, in fact, they are mostly a distraction. So, when I am writing and talking about voice recognition software, I do not include voice controlled devices. As an experiment to illustrate my point, ask Siri or Alexa to open your genealogy program and search for your great-grandfather.


  1. Early forms of technology did very little to help us with genealogy. My first experience with a personal computer came with me building one of the first type of "PC's" it did almost nothing but allow me to learn how it worked. Today I use a computer not only for genealogy but other items on a daily basis. With some of the new genealogy programs you can accomplish a documented 4 generation pedigree in very short time. Ask your ancestors how long that took with early help from a computer. It probable slowed them down.

    So with todays Siri, or Echo type devices they offer very little to help us with genealogy or any other type of use full work. But with improvements, which will come, could completely change the way we do genealogy just like prior gadgets.

    Today I have a Amazon Echo sitting on my desk. I use it mostly for setting an alarm and other useless stuff. What if we could tell Siri/Echo to find me the birth date of my ancestor and it responded with a correct answer. I have tried this and get some results but not very good at this time. But I believe like other technology it will improve and become a great asset for us. We just need to be patient and keep trying new things like in the past they will get better.

    Just a few years ago IBM Watson could only beat humans at Jeopardy but today it is being used to solve complex health problems.

    Just wait for Siri/Echo to catch up.

    1. I may not live that long. I have shorter perspective than I had thirty years ago when I began. :-)