Tuesday, December 05, 2006

My Word!

Finding a telephone number in the UK just got more exciting. Finding that subscribers to a paid service were unwilling to cough up more money for the pleasure of finding the number they wished to call, one of the directory enquiry services has now instituted a free service. Not only is it free of charge but it’s also free of human intervention. Voice technology has come to the phone directory.

Some years ago, I was given as a present, a copy of some of this super software that would enable you simply dictate your thoughts and words to the computer. The instruction book had glossy pictures of happy dictators (not the Hitler, Mussolini type – the other sort), headsets and microphones akimbo, chatting away to their computer. Every one is smiling, I noted, although at the time I did not know what they were smiling about.

Having read the introduction, I was on the point of tossing my keyboard aside as being of no further use, everything could now be done by my word alone it seemed.

Understandably, however, it pointed out that the software would have to get to know my voice. This was reasonable, clearly we were going to have a long and intimate relationship and I could not expect us to become close pals without a discussion of some sort.

It suggested that I read to it, a sort of computer bedtime story, and gave me an example that was going to take 45 minutes it said. It was the most boring piece of literature one could imagine and, on thinking about it, perhaps the troubles I later experienced were due to the computer nodding off whilst I was in midstream.

Having got through this, I then found that, in order to alert the device to my instructions, it was necessary to speak to it in a peremptory fashion, a fashion far removed from my usual tone when dictating.

“No, Miss Witherspoon, for the last time, there is no F in elephant.”

Instead, I was expected to say, sharply, “Wake up,” to get the thing going or “Go to sleep,” when I wanted it to stop. Not your usual approach to a secretary if you want to keep them, and likely to lay yourself open to charges of sexual harassment.

There was a bit in the instructions that said, “Don’t be surprised if there are some mistakes.” As I dictated my first paragraph, I realised the wisdom and foresight of the writers of the manual in including this admonition. However, they had not gone far enough, I felt. What I found surprising was, not that there were any errors, but that any of the words had come out right at all. It seemed that the software and I were not as good pals as I had hoped. In fact, it looked as though the device was, frankly, taking the Mickey. For a moment I wondered if I had made an error and got the Assyrian language version, some of the words looked vaguely familiar.

I turned to the “Help” section of the manual. “Enunciate your words clearly,” it said. I was hurt. The only prize I had ever gained at school was for elocution.

I re-read the sample passage to it again. This time I nodded off half-way through.

The software proved its versatility by providing a totally different interpretation this time, more in the manner of Ancient Greek, I thought.

There is the old joke about setting a lot of monkeys to work with typewriters (word processors now, I suppose) to write a novel. Here, perhaps, was the answer. If I talked to it long enough, surely it would produce some ideas of staggering originality, a novel in a new and exciting genre. The Booker Prize gleamed in the far distance.

I tried “No, Miss Witherspoon, for the last time, there is no F in elephant.”

The software puzzled over this for a minute or two. Then typed:

“No missing with the spoon, four the last timer, therein no effing elefant.”

My copy of the software is available to the highest bidder.

It seems the telephone directory service is having similar problems. Those that have tried it reported that it seemed to be singularly obtuse, exactly the opinion I had formed of my software.

They would do well to outsource the service to Mumbai. And, of course, they know a bit about elephants there. Perhaps I’ll give them a try for my novel.


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