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Last Updated: Saturday, 28 May 2005, 11:26 GMT 12:26 UK
Machines' way with words

By Stephen Evans
BBC North America business correspondent

It has happened to most of us. The phone call you make to your bank is answered by a talking machine. It asks questions, you answer and then it asks more questions. Voice recognition systems are becoming more prevalent... and scarily efficient.

Actor John Cleese plays Basil Fawlty on the telephone in 1975
Talking to a voice recognition system can be extremely frustrating

I had a bit of a Basil Fawlty moment the other day.

I rang 411, the American directory inquiries, which now uses a voice recognition system.

I told the machine I wanted the number for Harlem Auto Mall and she - for this machine had a female voice - replied: "Harlem Public School 154." No doubt like lots of people, I found myself ranting.

Machines, you see, have personalities.

Banks, phone companies, railways and all kinds of alleged helplines, are spending a lot of money trying to find out what kinds of voices they should give the machines that speak to us, the public, on their behalf.

Much of the research is conducted in a small room - Room 325 in McClatchy Hall at Stanford University in California.

It is the site of the dryly entitled but fascinating Laboratory for Communication Between Humans and Interactive Media, which is the domain of a genial, enthusiastic professor called Clifford Nass who studies how people and machines get on, particularly when the machines talk to the people.

In his lab, a stream of students and local people of all shapes and sizes undergo tests.

Voices of different ages and accents are played to them and their reactions noted: "Did you trust that voice?" and "Did this one have authority?"

Gender research

Generally, the tests show that people are less persuaded by female voices than by male ones, though people are more likely to be antagonised by a male voice.

A volunteer tests software
In Germany men reacted against being given directions by a female voice

On the up-side, male-voiced machines are perceived to have energy and authority.

An example of this can be found in Japan, where a stockbroking company used a female voice on its machine to give information on stocks and shares but then a male one to make the actual sale.

Now, in many parts of the world, when you hire a car you get a navigation system - a little electronic map on a screen with a machine voice.

In America, it is a female voice, whom I like to call Gladys.

She tells me, say, to make a right in two miles and - I fancy, at least - gets exasperated if I do not follow her directions. "Recalculating route," she snaps, in her American English.

In Germany when they tried a similar system, men reacted against being given directions by a female voice, so it had to be taken off the market.

Old people, by the way, take advice more readily from young people than from people their own age.

Sensitive advice

Tone matters to drivers.

Clifford Nass
Clifford Nass says some machines can even fool him

Professor Nass is working on a system where the machine's voice changes according to how you address it.

He has discovered that irritable drivers calm down if the voice on the navigation system is subdued, though for some reason that he does not quite understand, calm drivers get wound up by subdued, low-key voices that do not vary in pitch.

So the next task is to vary the navigation system's voice according to how grumpy you, the driver, are. If you sound aggressive to the machine, the machine will change tone to calm you down.

The technology is improving all the time.

Basically, machines that speak first involve a human actor recording countless different words and syllables and a computer which then reassembles the sounds into coherent sentences, according to what it thinks you have said to it.

These machines are getting better and better at recognising more accents and variations.

They are also better able to talk back without sounding like a machine.

Professor Nass told me that there is a company in Edinburgh that now makes a machine voice that is so lifelike, he thinks it really is a person.

Virtually real

It seems the androids are getting very good indeed. And companies like them a great deal.

Soon the androids will speak better than we do

They even construct personas around the voices on the machines that speak for them.

One of the Canadian telephone companies published a biography of the imaginary woman its machine was imitating. She was Emily, a nice small-town girl who had a history degree and went backpacking round Asia after college.

With some panache, a local radio host decided to call her up.

Emily, of course, being a machine could only answer his chat with lines like: "You're calling to check your account balance. Is that right?"

It may be, though, that the company has the last laugh.

Emily is paid no wages and the telephone company reckons it saves $3m a year by employing her instead of a crowd of expensive, high-maintenance human beings.

There is no doubt that soon the androids will speak better than we do, and they are much, much cheaper... they are much, much cheaper... much, much cheaper.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 28 May 2005, at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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