Skip to main content

Voice recognition will always be stupid

By David R. Wheeler, Special to CNN
August 20, 2013 -- Updated 1144 GMT (1944 HKT)
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
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1947 GMT (0347 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Jimmy Carter's message about the need to restore trust in public officials is a vital one, decades after the now 90-year-old he first voiced it
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2156 GMT (0556 HKT)
Ford Vox says mistakes and missed opportunities along the line to a diagnosis of Ebola in a Liberian man have put Dallas residents at risk of fatal infection
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2221 GMT (0621 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz says California is trying, but its law requiring step-by-step consent is just not the way hot and heavy sex proceeds on college campuses
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2048 GMT (0448 HKT)
Mike Downey says long-suffering fans, waiting for good playoff news since 1985, finally get something to cheer about
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2139 GMT (0539 HKT)
Steve Israel saysJohn Boehner's Congress and the tea party will be remembered for shutting down government one year ago
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1856 GMT (0256 HKT)
Yep. You read the headline right, says Peter Bergen, writing on the new government that stresses national unity
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrators are but the latest freedom group to be abandoned by the Obama administration, says Mike Gonzalez
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1423 GMT (2223 HKT)
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1455 GMT (2255 HKT)
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 2303 GMT (0703 HKT)
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1419 GMT (2219 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1859 GMT (0259 HKT)
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
September 27, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1332 GMT (2132 HKT)
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1233 GMT (2033 HKT)
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 2137 GMT (0537 HKT)
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 0910 GMT (1710 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT