Teaching the computer a few choice new words | AspenTimes.com

Teaching the computer a few choice new words

Andy Stone

I’m starting to feel like one of those mothers with a handful of young children, who complain, “I spend all day talking to a 3-year-old, a 5-year-old and a 6-year-old. I’m starting to talk like them.”

I don’t have any children, but I know what they’re talking about – I find myself spending way too much time talking to computers and it works out to the same thing.

You know the computers I mean – they’re the ones that answer the phone when you call companies that don’t want to spend the money to hire an actual human being to sit at a desk all day and be rude to people who call. (I am not, of course, referring to the magnificent human beings who answer the telephones at The Aspen Times swiftly, politely and accurately.)

These days, businesses are working hard to make sure your day is never ruined by having to talk to, look at or – God forbid – actually touch another human being. Having forced us years ago to pump our own gas, they have now trained us to “pay at the pump.” No human interaction needed.

It’s the same at the grocery store. First, they cut back on the number of cashiers, forcing customers to wait in endless checkout lines until their heads were ready to explode. Then – “to serve you better!” – they introduced self-service checkout. Scan and bag your own groceries! What a delightful new experience! Actually, of course, it’s a hideous experience – except when you compare it with waiting in line behind someone who’s shopping for an entire Boy Scout troop and wants to pay with a third-party check from the Iraqi National Bank.

So, little by little, human contact is disappearing from our daily lives.

For some of us, of course, this is a good thing. But, personally, I miss chatting with my friends behind the cash registers at City Market. And I know that, years ago, when I was pumping gas here in Aspen, chatting with me was the high point of the day for many people. (Right?)

So, just as businesses cut back on service little by little until we were glad to give up all human contact in exchange for getting through our daily chores more quickly, now, I think, they’re going to use our yearning for human contact to make us willing to chat with computers.

I’m tempted right here to say that talking to a computer is like having sex with an inflatable doll – except that (1) I’ve never had sex with an inflatable doll (Honest … sorry to disappoint you, but that’s the way it is) and (2) lots of people apparently enjoy having sex with inflatable dolls … but no one enjoys talking to a computer.

More and more, you can overhear people talking to computers. You can tell, right away, because the people are trying to talk like computers. They speak slowly, stiffly, one word at a time. “Yes. Yes. Service. Tom. Smith.”

It’s a world filled with people pretending to be machines, talking to machines pretending to be people. And both sides are doing a rotten job of it. Those computers don’t sound like people. And we aren’t very good at sounding like machines.

I mean, we do OK at the beginning – the conversation I transcribed above – but that’s only the first part of the conversation. The second part goes more like this: “No. Tom. … Smith. TOM. SMITH!… No. NO! No you stupid #@#!** machine! Tom #!*@%! Smith!”

In short, we lose it. We explode. We blow up … which gets me back to my inflatable doll analogy. No … actually, it gets me back to the beginning, to my point about businesses being too cheap to hire actual human beings to answer the phone, mispronounce your name, misdirect your call and then get nasty with you when you call back to complain.

Right now, computers can handle all of those tasks except the last one – and I’m sure that someday soon they’ll develop voice recognition software that will remember that you were the guy who cursed at the computer five minutes ago. In fact, computers being computers they’ll be able to recognize that you were the guy who cursed at a different computer, halfway around the world, two years ago.

“Hel-LO!” says the unfailingly cheerful computer. “Please spe-ak the name of THE per-SON you wish to speak to.”

“Tom. Smith.” you say.

“Hang on, buster!” shouts the computer. “You’re the guy who insulted the XC-9750 in Omsk last December.” CLICK! Then the phone explodes in your hand.

Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His e-mail address is andy@aspentimes.com