- Last Updated on Wednesday, 10 March 2010 05:00
- Published on Wednesday, 10 March 2010 05:00
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A computer company in Edinburgh, Scotland, called Cereproc, a spinoff from a project that began at the University of Edinburgh, has developed a system that changes the entire notion of a computer generated voice. Most notably, this week, one of the big celebrity stories was how Roger Ebert, the famous film commentator who lost his voice following cancer surgery, can now, thanks to Cereproc, type his comments and thoughts and have them immediately translated into what was his actual voice. It’s uncanny, it works, and its impact on our future relations between humans and computers is both encouraging and disturbing. But it also shows how quickly computers and various technological applications are developing a personality. Or, perhaps it’s more accurate to say, a simulated personality. A voice, with inflexion, emotion, whether it’s instructional, angry or pleased, is an important step in changing the way we relate to automation and computing.
But, in my case, and I hope I am not alone, is that I already have a problem when it comes to relating to a host of automated applications. Raised in the South and taught to be courteous to everyone, no matter what, with lots of “hellos,” “yes ma’am, no ma’am,” “pleases,” “thank yous” and yes, of course, “y’all come again, ya hear” — I find myself, and have for years, talking back to a host of automated devices and applications. It used to worry me, maybe it still does a little, but as the computers become more human, maybe this bizarre affectation won’t seem so bad after all.
Take the gas pump. In the old days, and this is prehistory for many, a driver didn’t even handle the equipment. A fellow with a Texaco Star, or perhaps in a Shell or Amoco uniform, would dash out, say hello, and pump your gas. You could talk about the weather or ask directions. That era, alas, ended over 40 years ago. So let’s move on.
Now, in the 21st century, you pump your own gas, but the process, at least at several of the stations I use, includes a voice that says hello and walks you through the process. Usually, and I know this sounds weird, at some point in the process, I talk back. It might be, if I am not quite awake yet, “a good morning” in response to the machine’s staccato greeting, or at the very least, and this almost always happens, “a thank you” when I get my receipt.
At the grocery store, when I go through the entirely automated check out line, I sometimes offer an encouraging word if the bar code reader has trouble reading the product code. I might say, “awe come on, try again,” or, “for gosh sakes, try harder.” And yes, if it doesn’t like my card, and I reach for a different one, I add, “OK, I think you’ll like this one.”
And when it’s all said and done, and the checkout machine has done its bit, and this is true at Lowe’s, Home Depot, Shoppers, Wegman’s, you name it, I always say “thank you.” In each instance, at least so far, though I am sure this is soon to change, my cheery note of appreciation is met with silence.
Most of us know that talking to machines isn’t new. My dad used to have colorful conversations, often aimed at his saws, drills, and routers, when he was working on projects. The words aren’t appropriate for a family paper. And true to that tradition, I still have those same conversations with many of the same tools. The difference, when it comes to my talking to gas pumps and automated check out lines, is that the computers I am talking back to, unlike a power saw, process a transaction that was once handled by a person. The problem is that I just haven’t made the adjustment.
I am sure a lot of younger people have no trouble treating these transactions as what they are. Namely entirely automated, impersonal, exchanges. I am sure they never give a thought to speaking to a card reader or a gas pump. They would, and rightly so, consider such behavior as downright weird. But, I am still caught in my own time warp, and I am not sure I can escape it. Fortunately, the technology, for a change, seems to be adjusting to people like me.
Who knows, if the voice simulation software keeps improving, gas pumps, in say, North Carolina, where I used to spend my summers, will take on their own regional accent. With the occasional, “Hey there, fill er up?” and “Y’all come again, ya hear.” At which point, when in my own demented way, I say “hello,” or “thank you,” or who knows, maybe even wishing this pile of circuits a nice day and encouraging it not to work too hard. And who knows, if technology keeps progressing the way it does, it might not seem weird after all.