Posted: Friday, March 30, 2012 7:00 pm
By PETER FUNT
Back in the ’80s our family had a Chrysler station wagon with limited vocabulary and laughably stilted pronunciation. We’d jump in and the car would declare in a halting voice, “A door is a jar.” That made us laugh, and it prompted my sister to quip, “I always thought a door was a toaster.”
Dad’s car was easy to live with because it didn’t have a human name, and it never talked back.
Now, many of my friends can’t go more than a few miles without checking with Siri, the fawning female who resides in iPhones. Even if you don’t own the device you’ve undoubtedly seen TV commercials in which Siri flirts with a young musician and coos, “I will call you Rock Star.”
These voices have been creeping up on us for some time. I used to look forward to hearing the “You’ve got mail” guy at AOL — who peaked around the time he starred in a movie with Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks — but lately he seems out of touch.
Several companies now use the phone voice I first heard at United Airlines: the guy who cheerfully repeats the same questions over and over, apparently hoping you’ll hang up in frustration before reaching an actual person, probably in the Philippines. You feel like you’ve won some sort of contest when he finally says, “OK. I’ll get an agent for ya!”
What strikes me as a cruel twist is that the presumably live offshore operators seem to be trained to speak English just like robots.
I’m fascinated by the sheer endurance of the airport woman who spends the day repeating eight gloomy words: “The moving sidewalk is coming to an end.”
I feel kind of sorry for my old answering machine who’s so senile it takes her forever just to spit out, “End…of…messages.”
I was surprised recently to discover that my Mac computer can read whatever is on my screen in 100 different voices, each of which Apple has thoughtfully given a human name. The default guy is Alex, but right now I’m listening to Serena — who I imagine is 5-foot-10 with long dark hair — reading this column with her sultry British accent.
The first machine to really give me the heebie-jeebies was Watson, the I.B.M. smarty-pants who beat people named Brad and Ken on Jeopardy last year. Watson sat there smugly, using his ultra-speedy buzzer capability and lightening recall to win more than three times his nearest human competitor.
What’s next? Melvin, the talking toothbrush (“Don’t forget to scrub your tongue”). Hank, the grouchy lawnmower (“Gotta do something about those gophers”). Sally, the nagging refrigerator (“Save some of that blueberry pie for tomorrow, Tubby”).
A company called Zazu is now marketing a mobile alarm clock that wakes you with a female voice delivering not only the time but also news and weather – even details of what your friends are saying on social networks.
The Zazu lady also reads a commercial, something I suspect was a human’s bright idea.
Audi vehicles now come with a “multimedia interface” on the dashboard that fields spoken questions from drivers. Audi says it is now working on a system that recognizes and adapts to the motorist’s state of mind to determine if the driver is stressed by a traffic situation.
Personally, I’m stressed when a gadget talks to me, no matter how bad the traffic happens to be. I continue to believe that machines should be seen but not heard.
Peter Funt is a writer and speaker and can be reached at www.CandidCamera.com.
This column has been edited by the author. Representations of fact and opinions are solely those of the author. Published in The Messenger 3.30.12