Future Tense

People Are Talking to “Voice Activated” Paper Towel Dispensers

A paper towel dispenser bears a sticker that says, "Voice Activated. Simply state 'need paper towel!' Be sure to speak clearly."
Think before you yell at a paper towel dispenser. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

Over the past few years, public bathrooms have been invaded by motion-activated faucets, soap dispensers, and hand dryers. At the sink, I spend half my time moving my hands in various positions, hoping to trigger the sensor, often wondering whether a faucet is broken or a soap dispenser is out, or I’m simply not doing it right. It’s the same game with the drying stage of hand-washing. Whether it’s a deafening air dryer or a paper towel dispenser you have to wave at just the right way, it’s nearly impossible to get these machines to work the first time around.

So when I first saw photos of a new “voice activated” paper towel dispenser, I didn’t blink an eye. It seemed like the natural evolution of glitchy, automated bathroom technology. “Simply state ‘Need paper towel!’ Be sure to speak clearly,” the sticker on one dispenser says. The logo design includes a generic company slogan: “#1 in innovation, #1 in invention.”

I immediately needed to know who makes these machines and where they are installed so that I might go see them in action—or, I guess, more accurately, I wanted to see their inaction.
How many times a person could conceivably repeat “Need paper towel” in a calm voice before their polite veneer cracked? I was curious whether people would completely lose their shit at the sure-to-malfunction machine, or bond with other bathroom users over the machine’s ineptitude (if you’ve ever used a women’s bathroom in a bar, you know it is a place of camaraderie), or just give up and walk away with still-wet hands.

My Google search to find which company hath wrought this wretched invention upon us turned up nothing but Amazon links to bundles of “voice activated paper towel dispenser prank stickers.” I’d been had!

The idea seems to have been around for a while, as evidenced by this delightful YouTube video from 2015, in which one good-spirited chap says “hand dryer on” calmly four times before his patience wears thin and he shouts at the dryer. That 2015 video seemed almost like a beta version of the prank; whoever orchestrated it posted a full laminated sign next to the hand dryer. More recent versions of the prank, posted on Reddit or Twitter, use “voice activated” stickers on hand dryers and paper towel dispensers.

The timing is perfect. Since 2015, voice-controlled assistants have skyrocketed in popularity, and you can now talk to all sorts of devices: your phone, of course, but also speakers, lamps, clocks, TVs, Wi-Fi routers, vacuums, lightbulbs, and even your Instant Pot. A voice-activated paper towel dispenser seems no less plausible than a voice-controlled grill. After all, earlier this year, many of us fell for this story about “Dorothy,” a teen girl who said her parents took her phone away and said she sent tweets from an LG Smart Refrigerator (which, of course, also takes voice commands). Yet, the motion-detecting technology most hand dryers and paper towels actually use is still bad enough that it doesn’t activate immediately, making it plausible that manufacturers might have given up and turned to voice controls. It’s also completely believable that you’d have to issue your command more than once. Voice-activated technology is still so temperamental that it might not hear you, or if it hears you, it might completely misunderstand you.

And though it would be a privacy concern to place an always-listening, voice-activated device in a public bathroom, it doesn’t seem very far-fetched that privacy might be overlooked in favor of the convenience or novelty of new technology. This year has seen a series of privacy disappointments: It was revealed that tech employees are actually listening to people’s smart speaker recordings, 2 billion records from Internet of Things device management company Orvibo were compromised, and other publicly available data, like people’s faces in YouTube videos, is being used to train algorithms. A speaker listening in on a public bathroom seems almost quaint compared with the wide range of privacy issues with modern devices. I will say, though, that I was heartened by the lack of YouTube videos documenting people’s successful voice-activated hand drying pranks, which I hope reflects the strength of the social norm that filming strangers in public bathrooms should forever be taboo.

The prank is funny now, but the joke may soon be on us, because private smart bathrooms are becoming an actual thing. The last thing I want is a toilet I can talk to or a smart mirror that shows me my schedule, but companies like Kohler and Moen are making them anyway. I assume Kohler was going for a hip feel to its recent smart bathroom ad, but the tagline gave me the creeps: “Your bathroom can be anything you want it to be.” OK, but what if I want all bathrooms to remain dumb? Hand dryer off, please.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.