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
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1259 GMT (2059 HKT)
You could be forgiven for thinking no one cares -- or even should care, right now -- about climate change, writes CNN's John Sutter. But you'd be mistaken.
September 21, 2014 -- Updated 2132 GMT (0532 HKT)
David Gergen says the White House's war against ISIS is getting off to a rough start and needs to be set right
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1917 GMT (0317 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says making rude use of the Mexican flag on Mexican independence day in a concert in Mexico was extremely tasteless, but not an international incident.
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1359 GMT (2159 HKT)
Michael Dunn is going to stand trial again after a jury was unable to reach a verdict; Mark O'Mara hopes for a fair trial.
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2147 GMT (0547 HKT)
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1927 GMT (0327 HKT)
Laurence Steinberg says the high obesity rate among young children is worrisome for a host of reasons
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT