Star Trek's Jean-Luc Picard stands on the transporter pad

UTM researchers engage in Star Trek vs. Alexa voice interface study

Friday, March 19, 2021 - 4:04pm
Kate Martin

Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.

If you read that in the voice of Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the Starship Enterprise, this study is for you.

UTM PhD candidate Benett Axtell, under the direction of professor Cosmin Munteanu,  has released a new paper called Tea, Earl Grey, Hot: Designing Speech Interactions from the Imagined Ideal of Star Trek. It looks at the influence of the television show on Voice User Interface (VUI) and compares it to real-world digital voice assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa.

“Alexa and those sorts of tools are often presented as the ideal speech interaction but that’s a very limiting view,” says Axtell, who works with Munteanu in U of T’s Technologies for Ageing Gracefully lab. “I wanted to look at what we are not getting, and thought, ‘You know who’s been talking to computers since the ‘80s? Star Trek.’”

She points to automatic doors at supermarkets, flip phones, and touchscreen tablets as some of the real-world tech inspired by Star Trek.

“(Star Trek) is what we imagined as our ideal speech interaction,” says Axtell, who watched both Star Trek: The Next Generation (ST:TNG) and the original ‘60s series in syndication with her family growing up. “So we should at least investigate it as a starting point, to think about where we are going next.”

The study is an off shoot of Axtell’s Master’s thesis, which examined how seniors interact with digital space. As VUI’s like Alexa, Apple Siri, Microsoft Cortana and Samsung Bixby become common, there is a hope technologies can be made more accessible to those who are less computer literate, such as older adults.  

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PhD candidate Benett Axtell is researching user speech interactions and is a member of the Technologies for Aging Gracefully lab at U of T's computer science department. (photo by Ryan Perez)

To supervise her research, Axtell turned to her lab co-director Munteanu, a fellow sci-fi fan.

“We are the Trekkies in the lab,” says Munteanu, a professor at UTM’s Institute for Communication, Culture, Information and Technology whose area of expertise is human-computer interaction. “When Benett floated this idea, I said, ‘Sure, let’s do this.’”

It wasn’t an excuse to watch TV, however, as Axtell chose to work from transcripts of the show — 69,355 lines of dialog in all. 

Although the original 1960s series also shows characters using VUI with the computer, the researchers decided to focus on ST:TNG, which aired from 1987 to 1994 when home computers and the internet were becoming mainstream.

Axtell divided the 1,372 individual exchanges  between ST:TNG characters and the ship’s computers (including the turbolift, holodeck and replicators) into seven categories: command, question, statement, password, ‘wake-up’ words, comments and conversation. 

The variety of interactions provided a data set similar to one which could be captured from ‘in-the-wild’ conversations, says Axtell.

“It’s such a huge series, over 100 episodes, 45 minutes each,” she says. “If we had just looked at one movie, it would be just really interesting things. With Star Trek, you also get mundane, practical things like making a cup of tea.”

The data revealed 95 per cent of interactions with the computer are brief and functional, not conversational.

“One of the big pushes in interaction like Alexa and Google Home is to get it as close to human conversation as possible, but maybe that’s not what we really want,” Axtell says. “People on the Enterprise aren’t having conversations with the computer, it’s very targeted interactions: They say ‘Deck Five’ in the Turbolift —  they don’t say ‘thank you’ or ‘please.’ It’s not an equal back and forth. They just get on with it.”

Axtell also compared how Star Trek characters and Alexa users interact with technology.

“They lined up amazingly well,” she says. “Entertainment is big for both — playing music, using the holodeck or VR —  or smart home things like making tea, starting your car or adjusting your thermostat. What the (Enterprise computer) can do that we can’t is heavy lifting analysis, like scanning an alien life form. We aren’t there yet.”

That’s the downside to growing up seeing the utopian technology of Star Trek, says Munteanu. “There’s an expectation that interfaces will work beyond their capabilities,” he says. “It gives us the dream of what is possible, but also a little disappointment that we aren’t there yet because even if someone is not a Trekkie, (the Star Trek influence is) still in the media exposure of what can be done, and what we are inspired to do when we work in these spaces.”

Axtell says this study was a high level look at how Star Trek uses their VUI, but there are plenty of other facets to explore in the data set, so they are sharing it online for others to explore.

In May, Axtell and Munteanu will virtually present their research at the Association of Computing Machinery’s Chi 2021.