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Monday, February 12

A Human Voice

I recently helped a friend register an Orange pay as you go mobile phone. This involved talking to a computer, which had sufficient powers of voice recognition to be able to take details like her name and address and repeat them back with 100% accuracy. This was very impressive. The older voice recognition systems were much more binary "Say yes now if you want me to do this". What was most amusing about Orange's system is that the script writers had made their android-operator cover the processing time between taking data with a pretence that "she" was writing the details down - "One moment, I'll just put that in for you". I'm sure that the obvious double entendre of the last phrase has led some readers to envisage how this technology might be used for X-rated purposes.

I like talking to machines on the phone when they work. It can be frustrating when the machine totally mishears you and suggests something ludicrous, as happened to me with the booking line for Travelodge. However, if Orange's technology is where things are heading, then there's a lot of Indians and Geordies who will be out of jobs in the coming years.

I'm reminded of something which happened when I was arranging my mortgage. My middle name is Spencer, which is also the name of one of the people at work. I was talking to a human being about my mortgage application and he asked my middle name. I said "Spencer", which immediately piqued the attention of the person whose first name that is. Then the mortgage guy, not hearing it correctly, asked me to repeat it. I said it again, louder and more clearly. I had said very little before it, and very little after it. To Spencer, all he saw was me, on the phone, saying his name, then a pause and then me saying his name again. In his mind, I was using an automated service for ordering a hitman:

Please say the name of the person you want us to kill. Spencer
I'm sorry, I didn't quite hear that, please repeat. SPENCER
You said "Spencer" is this correct. Yes

I'd never do that. Honest.

On Saturday I arranged to pay my water rates by direct debit using an automated service. Once they had my account number they could basically take my bank account details and arrange the direct debit. The system worked brilliantly with an automated guide. It worked brilliantly until it went horrendously wrong. I owe about £50 for the remainder of the financial year and then they're going to charge me monthly for next year once they've worked out how much they're going to charge. The computer correctly deduced that my first payment by direct debit would be on 2nd March and would be for £50. Then it tried to calculate the payments that would follow. It then told me that it would be followed by 8 payments of £0. This suited me, since I knew that it would be recalculated and I'd be charged next year's rate when it was ready. However, the computer, which had clearly been programmed with some "boundary conditions" wasn't convinced that it should be promising me a payment plan with any payments of £0 in it. So, having completed a whole direct debit setup process, I was then told that it was broken, and I had to speak to a real person.

The real person I spoke to was lovely. She was very helpful, as efficient as the computer at taking down details, and much more efficient for explaining answers to questions like "so how many payments will there be?" and "when will next year's bill be calculated". She even helped me take a contract out on one of my workmates.

So, the moral of the story is that computers that can pretend to be humans, following a script, can be as much fun as humans that follow scripts in call centres (though they wouldn't pass the Turing Test), but there's no substitute for a helpful real person. Human contact is valuable, which is why I'd never have someone murdered, not even if there were a convenient online system for doing it.

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