Odd Thoughts: Automated understanding

A damaged microphone on my iPhone gave me some insight into the current state of automated voice recognition.

I took the phone in to the geniuses at Apple – I’m not being facetious, that’s what they call themselves.

I don’t know about “genius,” but they did seem to have a handle on what they were doing.

Except they couldn’t fix the microphone. So they offered to replace the whole phone for the cost of fixing the mic. Cool.

But when I got the work order, it quoted the full price of a replacement phone. So I called the genius store to ask what’s up with that.

The geniuses don’t answer their phone. A computer does.

It isn’t a “Press one for English…” kind of computer. The Apple genius computer tries to have a conversation.

It’s a clever idea, but…

Upon being invited to speak freely, I explained my situation. However, every time I said “replacement phone,” the voice on the other end of the line offered to replace my phone.

“No,” I explained, “I don’t want a replacement phone…”

And the voice offered to replace my phone.

So I tried again.

“I’m already getting a replacement phone,” I said.

And the voice offered to replace my phone.

I started sounding like I was explaining how fish swim to a four-year-old.

The carefully exaggerated enunciation of short words in short phrases did nothing to aid the computer in understanding my plight.

But instead of flat-out offering to replace my phone, this time I got detailed instructions on how to have my phone replaced.

One small step for a man…

So I simply asked to speak to someone about the indicated charge, adding no particulars.

And the voice asked me for particulars.

I said it was about a bill… and got contact information for the genius’s accounting department.

When I finally uttered a sentence that included the words “real human being” I was transferred to a live body, who set my mind at ease about the work order, and commiserated with me over the automated voice.

“We haven’t got all the bugs out yet,” he said.

I should have responded, “I feed chickadees through the winter and they eat the bugs in my garden the rest of the year.”

But not as fast on my feet as that computer, I just said, “Yah,” as if I understood.


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