These days searching for a number in a five centimetre thick telephone directory seems very old fashioned. Voice recognition systems are becoming more and more common and efficient: the best of them apparently recognise 49 out of every 50 words.
These devices save companies a huge amount of money. Stephen Evans in New York has been talking to the machines and to the men who design them.
I had a bit of a Basil Fawlty moment, the other day. I rang 411, the American directory enquiries which now uses a voice recognition system. I told the machine I wanted the number for "Harlem Auto Mall" and she -- for this machine had a female voice -- replied "Harlem Public School 154". No doubt like lots of people, I found myself ranting.
Machines, you see, have personalities, and banks, phone companies, railways and all kinds of alleged help-lines are spending a lot of money trying to find out what kinds of voices to give the machines that speak to us, the public, on their behalf.
Much of the research is conducted in a small room -- Room 325 in McClatchy Hall -- in Stanford University in California. It's the site of the drily-entitled but fascinating laboratory for "Communication between Humans and Inter-active Media", and the domain of a genial, enthusiastic professor called Clifford Nass who studies, quite simply, how people and machines get on, particularly when the machines talk to the people.
In his lab, a stream of students and local people of all shapes and sizes undergo tests. Voices of different ages and accents are played to them and their reactions noted: "Did you trust that voice?" "Did this one have authority?"
Generally, the tests show that people are less persuaded by female voices than by male ones (though people are more likely to be antagonised by a male voice). On the up side, male voiced machines are perceived to have energy and authority. One of the results of that, for example is that in Japan a stock-broking company used a female voice on its machine to give information on stocks and shares but then a male one to make the actual sale.
Now, in many parts of the world, when you hire a car, you get a navigation system -- a little electronic map on a screen with a machine voice. In America, it's a female voice (whom I like to call Gladys). She tells me, say, to make a right in two miles and -- I fancy, at least -- gets exasperated if I don't follow her directions: "Recalculating Route", she snaps, in her American English.