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Charlie Guarino Speaks With the Original Voice of Aussie Siri, Karen Jacobsen

Charlie Guarino talks to Karen Jacobsen about her journey to becoming Australian GPS voice, the rise of voice assistants, and Karen’s work as a singer/songwriter.

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Charlie Guarino: Hi everybody, welcome to another edition of TechTalk, I'm really thrilled today to introduce a very good friend who I met in New York City roughly about 10 years ago and I have to be honest. I don't have many friends that I can say have appeared on the ABC News, has been Glamour magazine, the Boston Globe, the Early Show, the Today Show, Ink magazine, the New York Times and listed in 2010 in People magazine as one of the most intriguing people out there in the world. This same person as a singer has performed in national anthem all across the United States including New York's Madison Square Garden, Boston's Fenway Park, Dodger's Stadium in Los Angeles, and stadiums in Chicago and of course in her homeland of Australia at the Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane and so many other events. Also, for more than 20 years, her voice has been heard on thousands of radio and television commercials. She has already released ten albums and a single been released in May of this year, the author of two books, holy cow, 'The GPS Girl's Road Map for Your Future' and 'Recalculate - Directions for Driving Performance Success,' but I think her biggest exposure is when I get to ask her a questions such as this: Hey Karen, what is the quickest way or the best way for me to get from New York to Australia?
 
Karen Jacobsen: Well Charlie, you would straight ahead until you reach your destination.
 
Charlie: Wow. If anybody recognizes that voice, you may recognize the voice as Karen Jacobsen also known as the GPS Girl. Karen, it is such a thrill to have you here today. I have to say because having you here as the original voice of SIRI and on GPS Devices is simply amazing.
 
Karen: Well, it was a completely unexpected development in my singer/songwriter career, you understand.
 
Charlie: Let's talk about that because not many people in the world can say that that their voices is now literally on over one billion devices out there, which is staggering.
 
Karen: It is staggering. It is still something that feels like it must be happening to somebody else because it is unimaginable. I mean while we're chatting Charlie, my voice is in phones and smart phones and in car GPS navigation systems. It's in elevators and cruise ships and software applications all the way around the world in millions and billions of locations telling people where to go and what to do while I'm here with you right now.
 
Charlie: So how do you get into all those—I don't know how you juggle all those assignments all the time, speaking in all those devices at one time.
 
Karen: You're making me—
 
Charlie: How’s that possible—
 
Karen: Yeah, you're making me feel like some kind of Wonder woman. I like it. Well, it is really—well, that brings us to technology doesn't it?
 
Charlie: Of course.
 
Karen: The absolute brilliance vision magnificence of what technology makes possible in the world.
 
Charlie: I totally agree, but it had to start somewhere. How does somebody even get that type of assignment? How do you get selected? What was the process and how did your voice become encapsulated into all those devices?
 
Karen: Well, I’m going to take you a little further back. I'm from a town called Mackay, which in the Mackay Sunday region in North Queensland, Australia. So if you know where the Great Barrier Reef is—if this is map of Australia and here's where the Great Barrier Reef is, then that's where I was born and raised. As a little girl, I had this dream. I saw Olivia Newton John on television and she was my inspiration and I knew what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to become a professional singer and move to America. Now, nobody else wanted that. Other people wanted to become a teacher or a doctor or a nurse but I wanted to be like Olivia Newton John. Fast forward, I followed that dream and moved to New York City in the year 2000 with my suitcase and my dream and as a singer and songwriter was writing and performing when I got an audition and that client was looking for a native Australian female voiceover artist living in the northeast of the United States. I had done a lot of a lot of voiceover work which I had got into through singing jingles when I had lived in Australia, so I saw that brief and I thought well that's a description of me. I went along to the audition. I got the job on the spot, and they said we need to take you to Ithaca in upstate New York for three weeks. We are going to put you in a hotel and then we'll have you record no more than four hours a day because we do not want your voice to sound fatigued or tired in any way. I got up to Ithaca. I'm in the hotel. I got to the studio; I record this massive script. Four hours after that I went and had lunch at Moosewood if anybody knows Ithaca and then back to my hotel room to rest my voice. That continued for three weeks.
 
Charlie: Wow and that obviously comprises many, many hours of speaking different phrases which is impressive. So that's an interesting question. How many hours did you speak?
 
Karen: It was a 50-hour recording job and so there was 50 hours of script. Now, this very clever team of engineers, brilliant, came up with the script, the phone book size script I would have to record so that they could capture every combination of syllables possible to then chop that up and create a voice system based on my speaking voice.
 
Charlie: So obviously you did not record every possible phrase in the human language. That's—
 
Karen: I didn't but what's pretty fascinating is I'll have people tell me that they were in Italy, or they were in France or they were in South America and they had my voice chosen in the device they were in and I am pronouncing with my Australian accent I'm pronouncing complicated French or Italian street names so I'm sure that leads to some hilarity and sometimes some frustration.
 
Charlie: I can vouch for that because I did use the device in France and there was your voice, and I can tell you that you safely got me to my direction so thank you. I can thank you now for that.
 
Karen: I'm very happy to hear that. 
 
Charlie: Yes, and I made it back so obviously it works. Great but you know let's segway a little bit because you alluded to a little and it is because of technology which is really the underpinnings of this entire fascinating amazing, process that we are discussing. I must tell you that I have been in technology my entire career and just when you think or just when I think that I've reached the ultimate plateau and I can't imagine what else is left to be done, we reached yet another level and that's the amazing part. I think voice is just the natural progression. We've moved from keyboards to even touch devices to now voice and you're such a big part of that. What are your thoughts on that?
 
Karen: Well, I happened upon a confluence of energies where I grew up dreaming that my singing voice and my songs would come out of the car radio. The GPS wasn't even invented but I dreamed very hard and very long throughout my childhood that my voice would be everywhere. I wasn't specific enough Charlie. It ended up everywhere—my speaking voice ended up everywhere, but I I think it's just truly fascinating that we can be in a time where we may not have time travel how we see it in the movies but when you think about how many locations in the world my voice is, a voice assistant voice is transmitting the energy from that voice system. I mean it's pretty astounding.
 
Charlie: I think of anybody embodies the notion that anything is possible with proper perseverance and fortitude, I think it's you because I read at the beginning some of your accomplishments and that's a short list. I mean that list goes on and on. It's absolutely amazing but I think you truly embody that and the fact that you're now, maybe not in person, but in every corner of the world is simply amazing so I tip my hat. It's amazing. I marvel at it.
 
Karen: Thank you.
 
Charlie: Let's keep this voice assistant conversation going because while I guess in everybody's mind it is a newer technology, a fairly new technology, it actually started the early 1960s. IBM, they had a division called the Advanced Systems Development Division and they created a voice recognition system called Shoebox and in fact if you go to YouTube, you can actually find videos on Shoebox being demonstrated. It understood a whopping 16 spoken words and it's amazing. The interest in this has been around for 50 plus years. So the interest is not new. The technology that we have today of course is new especially in what we have what's called natural language processing and it's amazing. There are so many things that we are now using voice assistance in everyday life for example visually impaired people. I know you mention that; we discussed at one point. How have you heard that being used in that space?
 
Karen: There is a community in the UK who first reached out to me and said I don't see but I have every sentence that I type, every email that comes in, whenever I'm doing a search online, your voice speaks every word to me and you're with me all the time. In some ways, you're my eyes. I don't know, Charlie. Boy, that just hits me in the heart in the most moving way to think that my voice could be a part of something so important and when we think about the impact of technology, I think that impact must be way up there in the most profound results certainly in voice technology but in technology in its totality.
 
Charlie: There is literally no industry that could be exempt from using this technology because voice is everywhere and it's actually growing exponentially. Do you know that three years ago there were said to be only—which is a funny term here—only 2.5 billion voice assistance being used and yet it's been forecast that in two years from today we're going to be over eight billion. That's more than the population of the world. Isn't that fascinating?
 
Karen: It is fascinating, and I have done my own research over the years on the number of devices that exist and it just in the early 2010's, it was just blowing my mind when I would read that oh my goodness, my voice is 25 million devices. What? 25 million and then it was in four hundred million devices and I hadn't researched this for several years but the last time it was over a billion devices so with your statistics, my voice is likely in billions of devices and locations. When you think about voice assistant technology, you know people are talking to their refrigerator. They're talking to the lights. Things are talking back to us everywhere.
 
Charlie: You know it's not just breadth of this technology but it's also the consumers of it because it's reaching a whole new set of people, a whole new set of demographic of people who would not have even been using technology. I think my own father. My father would never a keyboard ever in his life, yet he was able to use a voice device and get things and have to the same wealth of information that's out as anybody typing into a keyboard. That's amazing.
 
Karen: Yeah, human curiosity can be endless, and I think that what we—even that example. It encourages curiosity which is such an incredible quality.
 
Charlie: And it even goes beyond that because there are people are illiterate and they can't type for example, unable to type or won't type or whatever the case and so whole new groups of people who never had access to this technology, it's just—I guess had to go back. It just never ceases to amaze me and of course anybody who's in business, this is one of the fastest emergence technologies in business. It's already been forecast to be almost a 30-billion-dollar industry in technology in the next two years or so, so anybody with a good vision of technology needs to really look at this and get acceptance from their—from their communities that they're working in. Do you know that I read somewhere that the millennials today might be the very last group of people who will ever type into a search engine?
 
Karen: That just—clearly I'm searching for words here, Charlie. I'm a writer. I have loved writing ever since I was young and I'm somebody with a really strong creativity and wanting to express creatively so I’m like the dinosaur in the dark ages. I have notebooks and pens and I love my notebooks and pens. I love the physical experience of writing in my notebooks whether I'm writing songs or writing something else—taking notes or whatever, I just love that. Then I am an excellent typist. My mother made sure I learned typing so I can type as quickly almost as I'm thinking when I have those creative ideas but the thought that that would no longer be a skill set somebody would learn or choose to use is pretty striking. I'm not sure what to make of it. I guess in some ways it could have an idea have much more immediacy but for me over the decades I've developed a creative process that comes through those channels and those filters. I will call them filters so I find it—I think what we're going to see is a really altered kind of creativity and I don't know what that's going to look like.
 
Charlie: You know the way we are processing information today is accelerating and—
 
Karen: So fast!
 
Charlie: So and the fact that we're using our voice. It's been noted that we can speak four times faster than we can type so while we're having a natural conversation, devices have the ability now to create a very customized response to us and we are literally speaking to another person. Now I'm going to say wink wink because I'm going to say I know it's Karen in the background which is wonderful, but that's terrific and it just speaks to the importance of getting behind voice technology. It's just out there and it's the way of the—it's here. It's the way of the future and even private security.
 
Karen: Yeah.
 
Charlie: We all thought that facial recognition was it, you know, it was the thing. Do you know that I have identical twin sisters and they can open each other’s phone with their faces but if we were to have their voice track and combined it with the face, we would then have a complete foolproof way of getting into anybody's phone, I believe.
 
Karen: Fascinating.
 
Charlie: Absolutely fascinating. What your thoughts of technology as far as we talked about this in the past—a point that you feel strongly about how we need harness technology to get the most out of our lives?
 
 
Karen: Well, technology as we continue to say is exciting; it's groundbreaking. What it makes possible is immense, but I know for myself and I see in others this temptation and I'm going to call it a trap, to get lost in the annals of what is going on and the mechanisms of the technology and sometimes forgetting what we're actually up to and we've all had an experience of sitting at the computer or sitting on our device and searching something. We sit down to write a specific communication to somebody and then we open our computer, and we see ten other things going on; 25 minutes later, we're like what did I open my computer for? Because it's just so shiny; it's so engaging, and I think on a macro level for us to really spend I'm going to say quiet time with ourselves frequently to really get clear on what are we up to in our own lives? What are we here on the planet for? What do we want to accomplish? So we can actually harness the magic and what technology makes possible but to meld it with our message or our mission to use it as a portal in a way to achieve those outcomes and not something that takes us down a number of potential distracting roads away from the one that is the most important to us so I think it's really about creating a healthy combo in our own lives, in our own daily lives of that away from device time and then delivering through the device time. I struggle with that. I struggle with that every day because I want my phone. I want to be connected to all my loved ones around the world and I love the immediacy. I love what it makes possible. My husband and I will be having a conversation. A topic will come up. We want to know. We want to look that up. We want to have the immediacy of that information and there's something pretty exciting about that, but I know for myself, I really need to watch to make sure I have adequate quiet time in between so I can literally hear myself think and be connected to my inner GPS, my inner sense of self.
 
Charlie: How did you first learn your voice was being used in GPSs? I know that's a fun story.
 
Karen: Well, my friend called me, and she was in New York state. She says oh Karen, my husband and I, we're driving from Maine back to New York City after the Christmas holiday and I bought my husband one of those new GPS thingos and so we're driving and my husband say why don't you put it onto the Australia voice so we did. We put it on the Australian voice and oh my God Karen, it's you. It's your voice directing us in the car. I turned to my husband and I said oh no. I bought you Karen Jacobsen for Christmas and that is how I found out that my speaking voice has ended up now in over a billion devices giving people directions around the world.
 
Charlie: And of course, if I get lost, what's that word that everybody loves or loves to hate or loves to hear—
 
Karen: Oh, recalculating but I'm here to say recalculating is actually good news because by the time you've heard that word, the satellites have already worked their magic and you're back on track a few turns usually and hopefully and you are on track.
 
Charlie: I know you have a young son. What were his first thoughts when he first heard his mother coming from this wonderful device?
 
Karen: Well, he's now 13 and so my voice has been in GPSs his whole life and now in phones and other devices and when he was little, I really think he thought everybody's mommy was in their own phone which is really the cutest idea isn't it to think that everybody's voice is in their own device.
 
Charlie: That's really great. Well, I'll tell you what. We're going to start wrapping this up but there's that famous line when we finally come to the end and the last thing I hear from my device is? 
 
Karen: You have reached your destination.
 
Charlie: Perfect. What a great way to end this wonderful journey that I've taken with you today. Karen, I want from the bottom of my heart, I want to thank you so much. The wonders of technology. Here I am in New York; you are in Australia and it's amazing—
 
Karen: Yes, I am.
 
Charlie: That we're having this fantastic visual and audio connection. It's just speaks to how great things are. Just the last point I want to make is that what we have here is amazing as I said, and I wish I could live another hundred years if for no other reason just to see what's going to happen. I mean we have expectations for our—anybody being born this year, can you imagine what their life is going to be like in 50 years or even 20 years for goodness’s sake.
 
Karen: Fascinating, endless possibility on all kind of realms.
 
Charlie: Really great. Well anyway Karen, thank you once again, truly thank you so much. Always a pleasure to speak with you. Anything else you just want to add to this? I know you have this single coming out. You want to just speak about your single?
 
Karen: Oh, from that GPS system that came out, I ended up creating an empowerment brand and I'm really all about living an inspired life and a purposeful life and have resources around that if people want to come and say hello at the GPSgirl.com or on social at RealKJ. I love to connect with people so they can come and be part of those resources and the new single, which is now out, will be when this is being heard and you can listen to it on all the streaming services. I love to connect with people so if people want to reach out, I welcome it and thank you so much Charlie for having me.
 
Charlie: Thank you and if you'd like to keep learning more about Karen and the things that she's done with her voice, I encourage you to just go onto YouTube or any other search engine and just type Karen's name in there. I promise you you'll find hours of fascinating videos and the like so that's that. So, as we said, I am Charlie Guarino. Thank you very much everybody for joining me this month. I will be back next month with another podcast and until then though make you visit TechChannel. There's lots of other great content on their site weekly newsletters, webinars, e-books, and the works so thank you very much again and I'll speak to you soon. Bye now.
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