Someone Needs To Look In A Dictionary:

And that someone is Richard Wilson, who is conducting an investigation for Channel Four (don’t laugh!) into those infuriating voice recognition software options that are supposed to make our lives easier:

In the TV programme, I try to book a cinema ticket. The computer asks me which film I’d like to see.

I tell it: ‘The Adventures Of Tintin.’

‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy?’ it responds.

I repeat: ‘The Adventures Of Tintin.’

‘Johnny English Reborn?’ it asks.

I try once more: ‘The Adventures Of Tintin.’

It replies: ‘We Need To Talk About Kevin.’

‘No, we don’t,’ I say, before slamming down the phone in frustration.

Now, I know I have a Scottish accent but it is hardly broad. And I don’t think RADA would be too happy to think one of its students couldn’t make himself understood by such a thing.

I visited Martin Russell, a voice recognition expert, and he told me the system works best if it’s a voice or an accent it has heard before.

He said: ‘The computer has an expectation about how every word in its vocabulary will be pronounced. It builds that expectation by listening to recordings of lots of people speaking. If all of the recordings it hears are from people in the south-east of England, then it would expect you or any other user to speak as if you came from the south-east of England.’

So now it appears that this machine might even be racist, too.

And the ‘race’ of people who live in the South East of England is…?

Can we stop this casual bandying-about of the term? It cheapens real racism even faster than the grievance-peddlers and racemongers do!


11 comments for “Someone Needs To Look In A Dictionary:

  1. January 15, 2012 at 10:04 am

    For almost the first time ever JuliaM I disagree with you. These systems are IMHO crap (technical term), they don’t work for me and I have a SE accent yet my bank uses one to request details like DOB and credit card number! Anything that gets such half-arsed poor design removed from public consumption is to be applauded.
    A process that cannot, whether by poor design or intent, be used by anyone with an accent (Scots, Welsh?) is indeed inherently racist.

    • Jiks
      January 15, 2012 at 10:51 am

      Woodsy … accents are not an indication of race. If a black woman is speaking in a cut-glass Oxbridge voice to the infernal device will, it seems, understand her. If the infamous Ms Cole calls it, not so much.

      Even if it was specifically designed by racists to discriminate against people by their colour it could not do so …

    • January 15, 2012 at 12:13 pm

      Er, no, it isn’t. Scots, Welsh and English are all Caucasian – i.e. we are the same race. Nationality and race are frequently confused and they shouldn’t be. There is a story in the news at the moment about a neighbour dispute and because one of them is German, it is being prosecuted as racial harassment. Bollocks. The Germans are Caucasian as well and they don’t just speak with a different accent.

      All of this being quite apart from the indigenous inhabitants of the British isles being somewhat mongrel sharing genes from across Europe.

      That said, yes, the systems being discussed are dreadful – but racist they most certainly are not.

      • January 15, 2012 at 12:22 pm

        OK, they are not strictly ‘racist’ because they discriminate on the basis of speech patterns not actual race. On the other hand when speech is a powerful proxy for racial recognition it is rather less clear cut.
        Please note I carry absolutely no torch for our politically correct statutes – as far as I’m concerned anyone should have the freedom to trade (or not) with anyone they want for any reason. I feel that taking such statutes to level of the absurd is one way to fight them.

        • January 15, 2012 at 2:49 pm

          They don’t discriminate. They just don’t work very well. Huge difference. They don’t pick up my Kentish accent either.

          Picking up on Jiks’ point – I’ve come across sub Continent Asians who speak Brum and Chinese with a Liverpudlian twang. For a while, my younger sister lost her Kentish accent and adopted a Welsh one. When we moved to Bristol, it changed subtly to a west country Bristle accent, which she still has if you listen carefully. We tend to pick up and echo the sounds around us. So, no not a hint of racism here, just crap technology.

          • nisakiman
            January 15, 2012 at 4:50 pm

            “…I’ve come across sub Continent Asians who speak Brum and Chinese with a Liverpudlian twang…”

            Some years ago I was in Thailand, and I stopped at a small bar on the outskirts of town for a beer. Well away from any tourist area, this was a local bar for locals. I asked (in my very rudimentary Thai) for a beer, and the guy behind the bar released a torrent of Gorbals Glaswegian at me, complete with a rich peppering of the F and C words. Ha! I nearly fell off my stool!

            As to the OP, we don’t have anything as sophisticated as voice-recognition software here in Greece. Not that I’ve ever come across, anyway. What is it that makes it superior to doing all those transactions online? There would seem to be a huge potential for error.

            • January 15, 2012 at 5:33 pm

              Our neighbours a couple of doors down are some sort of Indian-Asian. But having lived in Glasgow all their lives, when they open their mouths, they are pure Rab C Nesbitt! 🙂

    • Single Acts of Tyranny
      January 15, 2012 at 12:32 pm

      Perhaps the computer is being electronically racist?

      • January 15, 2012 at 12:46 pm

        Thread winner! 😆

  2. Furor Teutonicus
    January 15, 2012 at 1:47 pm

    Similar problems were reported here about three or four years ago (Why are the Brits so backward?), apparantly these machines can NOT be made to understand a Sachsen/Bayrisch/Austrian.

    Then again, all three, when appearing in the news or talk shows in the rest of Germany are subtitled.

  3. Tattyfalarr
    January 15, 2012 at 3:56 pm

    It’s a bit ridiculous to blame a machine when any lack of communication is directly due to the company using it because they cannot be arsed to engage directly with people who want to give it money.

    If you don’t like it don’t use it and throw your hard-earned cash at someone else instead. Better yet, keep it for yourself 😉

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