Skip to main content

Voice recognition will always be stupid

By David R. Wheeler, Special to CNN
updated 7:44 AM EDT, Tue August 20, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Wheeler: We all know futility or trying to make automated systems understand us
  • We put up with it because we think the technology will soon be perfected -- it won't, he says
  • He says computers can't get human logic, ambiguity; some firms put people back on phones
  • Wheeler: Unless companies design systems based on human intelligence, they'll never work

Editor's note: David R. Wheeler lives in Lexington, Kentucky, where he is a freelance writer and a journalism professor at Asbury University. Follow him on Twitter @David_R_Wheeler

(CNN) -- "Please tell me your name," a robotic female voice says to the caller.

"Larry Valentine," the caller responds.

"You said, 'Barry Shmalenpine.' Is that right?"

So begins the exchange between actor Kevin James and the automated phone system in the 2007 film "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry" -- a scene that correctly assumes moviegoers have had personal experience with the absurdity of non-human customer service.

Who hasn't? We've all waited through the recitation of menu items, none of which were related to our actual question. We've all hit zero repeatedly, hoping to be transferred to a real person. When that didn't work, maybe we even lost our temper, shouting "Representative!" over and over, whether the robot had given us that option or not.

Why hasn't there been a mass revolt against automated systems? The answer is simple: We believe that this nonsense is temporary. We believe that computers are on the cusp of being able to understand human language. And that belief, according to many linguists and cognitive scientists, is completely wrong.

David Wheeler
David Wheeler

First, there's the problem of voice recognition itself. Julie Sedivy, a professor of linguistics and psychology at the University of Calgary, told me that simply recognizing speech sounds and matching them up with specific words is much more complicated than most people realize.

"The way I say 'dog' will depend on my age, gender, geographic dialect, the particular anatomy of my vocal tract, and how quickly or formally I'm speaking," she said. "Humans are able to calibrate their perception after hearing just a couple of seconds of someone's speech, but really good speech recognition is still a problem for many programs."

Although this technology has steadily improved for the past 20 years, "speech recognition systems are still markedly inferior to human beings in understanding spoken language," said John Nerbonne, a linguist and information sciences professor based in The Netherlands. "Telephones are a particularly difficult medium because they limit the signal a good deal."

Furthermore, studies show that people almost universally hate automated phone systems, and that most customers are even willing to pay more to speak to an actual person.

"Ally Bank, Discover Card and TD Bank all have ads on television right now that brag about the fact that if you call the phone number, a real live person will answer," said Adam Goldkamp, spokesperson for GetHuman, an organization dedicated to improving customer service. Such is the sad state of the current customer service world. In other words, only now are companies starting to wake up to the lost revenue potential of frustrated customers who give up on the automated system and take their business elsewhere.

"When you see companies launching ads like these, it shows they understand that there are things they can do to increase their future revenue by giving customers what they want: an actual person to speak to when they have an issue," Goldkamp said.

Maybe one day in the future, automated systems will be able to identify our words with perfect accuracy. Even then, there is still an insurmountable problem: the ability to understand what we mean by those words.

2011 Siri: Apple's new voice recognition

"We're a long way from being able to communicate with computers in real language," said Suzanne Kemmer, director of Cognitive Sciences and associate professor of Linguistics at Rice University. "Human language has a powerful design feature that works great for normal person-to-person interactions, but is completely at odds with the way computers work."

Computers are based on formal logic and fixed categories, she explained. Human language is flexible and dynamic, and follows a cognitive logic that differs fundamentally from computers. In short, human words and grammatical structures don't have fixed meanings. Instead, they have a certain amount of vagueness and ambiguity built in, so that their meaning is highly affected by context.

Actually understanding meaning is a very different problem from voice recognition or from the auto-correct on your computer or phone, Kemmer said.

When I brought up this topic with Harvard professor Steven Pinker, one of the world's most influential linguists, he noted that major companies, by looking for statistical patterns in large datasets and applying them to user input, have largely dropped the ball when it comes to real artificial intelligence: "The stupidity of a lot of computer language understanding systems comes from the fact that they've turned their backs on genuine intelligence and satisfied themselves with statistics."

In other words, computers are still very bad at trying to guess what we mean when we say something.

They also don't get our social and emotional psychology. "Often the automated phone systems were developed with a tin ear to the way people interact with each other," Pinker told me. "They sound like people, but if you think of them as such, they are the most infuriating people in the world. When I hit '0' to get a human being, and a voice dripping with a combination of mock concern and mock confusion says, 'I'm sorry, but I did not understand your answer,' I am apt to go into a rage."

"If this were a real person," Pinker added, "she would be simultaneously stupid, mendacious, and condescending."

It's time to stop the madness. We are not on the cusp of inventing computers that understand human language. Silicon Valley can, and will, continue to strive for this goal.

In the meantime, let's stop kidding ourselves. Let's admit that computers, by themselves, are terrible at customer service. Let's admit that, at a time of economic uncertainty and job losses, we should be supporting companies that employ real people to answer our questions. Let's admit that, unless we demand change, we will be forced, forever, to deal with an automated system that thinks our name is Barry Shmalenpine.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David R. Wheeler.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:26 PM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT