Originally published on Forbes

Millennia before the written word, storytelling was a purely oral tradition, with knowledge, customs and beliefs all passed down through the generations by word-of-mouth. All communication was direct and conducted through the medium of human speech. Fast-forward several ages, and we find ourselves in a new world of not just printed, but digital and virtual communication where the cell phone is so ubiquitous it’s practically the new human limb. For many, there’s a concern the device designed to connect us with each other has us so absorbed into our screens that we’ve stopped noticing the world around us.

The Power Of Speech

As a speech technologist, I’m inspired by the potential for voice to drive change for the better by encouraging us to look up from our screens. It also has the potential to enable marginalized groups to join in the conversation. As humans, we’re still hard-wired to respond to the spoken word, and expressing ourselves with our vocal cords still comes more naturally than punching a button or touching a screen.

Voice is set to transform our anthropological landscape, and while smart speakers and virtual assistants are already causing a stir, it’s still early days. So, how does the future of voice look — or rather, sound — and what benefits can it bring?

More Hands-Free Time? ‘Add To Cart’

It’s estimated that 50% of all search will be conducted via voice by 2020. For businesses, this could mean significant changes when it comes to optimizing content for voice. Move aside, e-commerce. Conversational commerce is the next big thing. While there may be challenges when it comes to more complex products, people are already starting to shop through speech, and technology will only improve to meet growing demand.

Some might say this will further feed our need for consumerism, but in many scenarios, finding the right product more quickly is not only convenient or desirable — it’s invaluable. Say you’re a parent looking for the next sized stroller at the best price. Shopping hands-free means staying hands-on — seeing to your child’s future needs while still being present. Here, voice is priceless.

‘Open Sesame’: Voice As A Remover Of Barriers

For some, being able to search by voice isn’t just easier, it’s the only real option that allows them to access the treasure trove of information available to the rest of the world. People with limited literacy or lower levels of education can suddenly enjoy the benefits of technology like never before. With this comes the opportunity to access education that is increasingly available in audio format.

OMG, Is That A Full Sentence?

The subject of literacy was also an emerging concern for parents and educators in recent years, due to the rise of texting culture. As shortened phrases like “LOL” became so prolific in young people’s everyday communications, their ability to express themselves fluently in fully formed sentences looked to be at risk. The increase in voice as a vehicle for search, therefore, comes as a welcome change, as it gradually ushers us back to fuller, unabbreviated language. It’s particularly encouraging to see this impact social media. Twitter has doubled its maximum character account, and although tweets remain brief, complete words and phrases are already starting to reappear in place of their shorter counterparts such as “u r,” “b4” and “gr8.” Brands looking to engage customers via social channels will need to optimize posts for natural spoken language, helping shape the path back to more fluent self-expression.

‘Alexa, I Don’t Feel Well’

So, if voice-enabled technology can help promote good parenting, better communication and social inclusivity, what else can it do? The recent partnership of Amazon’s Alexa with the U.K.’s National Health Service shows it can also play a part in improving healthcare in the home. Now, Brits who find themselves under the weather can describe their symptoms out loud and receive medical advice and reassurance in the comfort of their beds.

In the United States, it’s predicted that 75% of homes will have at least one smart speaker by the end of 2020. As more and more skills are developed, they will be able to offer value not just for lifestyle and entertainment but also for health and well-being. In order to deliver that value, the quality and range of speech training data used to power these systems will be instrumental in ensuring that every voice is heard.

Reconnecting Through Voice

It’s a whole new world when it comes to voice technology, and the market is set to grow. As of right now, just 4% of businesses have implemented interfaces based on voice, but 38% of them are experimenting with it or planning on doing so in the future. With that growth comes the potential to reconnect in a way that is ground-breaking and futuristic, yet fundamentally human.

While we continue to be inspired by the tech innovations of our time, maybe the next stage of evolution is about reintegrating the world around us with our ever-switched-on digital world, so we can truly reap the best of both. We may still be glued to our devices, but with the help of voice, perhaps we can start to look up a little more.