Ridley Scott's Blade Runner: The Voice-First Future is Now

Blade Runner, Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi neo-noir film adaptation of Phillip K. Dick’s futuristic novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? takes place in November 2019.  The film offers us a glimpse of what was thought to be the future 37 years ago. Set in our present, I wonder: how much of the tech did it get right?

A dingy, dystopian Los Angeles plays backdrop to some of the film’s most iconic predictions include flying cars (spinners), sophisticated AI (replicants), and voice-activated technology. Although AI isn't quite as sophisticated as Blade Runner’s replicants (bioengineered humanoids) and we still don't have flying cars, there were, however, a few predictions that are part of our lives today.

Rick Deckard authenticates his ID at elevator.

When entering his apartment building, Rick Deckard’s identity is authenticated both via voice and keypad.

Elevator: Voice print identification. Your floor number please.
Deckard: Deckard, ninety-seven.
Elevator: Ninety-seven, thank-you, (danke)

The technology in this scene is similar to today’s smart locks and voice authentication.  In just the last year or two, we’ve seen the rise of Alexa, Google, and smartphone-enabled smart locks--usually part of a larger smart home suite-- that can be controlled via voice. These locks can be opened with a pin, a trusted voice, or both - allowing keyless entry into the premises.

Deckard uses Esper to enhance a crime scene.

Another prevalent form of voice-first technology is present in the Esper scene. We see Deckard commanding the Esper--a voice activated device that can zoom into and analyze images--to aid in his crime scene analysis. Through voice control, Deckard is able to move through the 3D images and even print out 2D hard copies. Talking to computers, a command form popular in sci-fi film, is available to the public through voice assistants starting with  Siri in 2011, as well as Google Assistant, Alexa, Cortana, and Bixby. Earlier this summer, Apple unveiled Voice Control, a feature that allows the user to  navigate and interact with their Mac and iOS devices using only voice. We’ve also seen the rise of voice-activated printing on Epson and HP using Alexa Skills or Google Actions.

Deckard calls Rachael on a public videophone.

In the film we see Deckard place a video call to Rachael in a phone booth. This scene is both a tech hit and miss: the video booth shows how the film completely missed the mobile phone revolution. However, while in the U.S. phone booths are a thing of the past, video calls have become a staple of 21st century communication. The mainstreaming of video telecommunication became possible through video chat applications such as Skype (2003). Video has become so prevalent that smartphones now have either integrated features--like Apple’s FaceTime (2010)--or apps that can be used to complete the task like Facebook’s Messenger (video added in 2013) or Zoom (2011). In the voice-first space, the evolution and adoption of multimodal devices such as the Amazon Echo Show line, Facebook Portal, and Google Home Hub/Nest Hub Max take this a step further into the future by eliminating manual dialing by replacing it with voice commands.  

Dr. Eldon Tyrell’s penthouse bedroom atop the Tyrell Corporation HQ.

Another scene that gets the voice-revolution partially right is that of Dr. Tyrell in bed using his voice assistant to trade stock. We hear him command “66 thousand Prosser and Ankovich. Hmm... Trade. Trade at--” before he’s interrupted.  It is this same voice assistant who announces to him that J.F. Sebastian is in the elevator seeking access to his apartment. This notification is similar to that of  a smart home doorbell, which might let someone know that there’s a visitor at their door.  The visionary voice technology is juxtaposed in the scene with a paper book in Dr. Tyrell’s hands, candles illuminating the room, and a lamp that must be manually turned on that sits near his chess game. We’d think that if he can trade stocks by voice and have his voice assistant notify him of visitors that he could at least turn his lights on and off by voice command as well.

If there is something that we know Blade Runner got right, it's that the future is now and that it's voice-first.


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