|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
(c) Peter Funt. This column was originally distributed by the Cagle Syndicate.