I think I

I met Julie in an upscale hotel room in Philadelphia over the weekend. Truth be told, I met her over the phone, in an upscale room in Philadelphia.

No, this is not as seedy as it sounds.

She’s everything I could possibly want: articulate, flexible, quick to respond, efficient…she even has that endearing habit of communication that I love so much (maybe ’cause I engage in it myself, to the frustration of some around me) of, when necessary, repeating back what she’s heard so that she can be certain that she’s understood what I want.

Yes, she’s everything I could possibly want – everything I could possibly want in a speech recognition system, that is.

You see, Julie isn’t a real person – she’s the automated voice activated speech recognition system that AmTrak uses to take bookings for its trains over the telephone.

I met Julie ’cause I had to get from Philadelphia to Washington for a meeting this morning, and someone who knows about these things suggested that I take the train rather than fly – having flown more lately than your average bird, I jumped at the idea.

So I called AmTrak and was immediately connected to Julie. She said hello and asked me where I wanted to go: truth be told, it took me more than a few seconds to figure out that I wasn’t talking to a live person.

When I told her I wanted to go from Philadelphia to Washington, she said “Great, let’s take care of the outbound portion first – when do you want to travel?”

As fond as I am of stirring the pot, I thought I’d mess with Julie’s digital mind: I said “Monday,” expecting her to register confusion and come back to me with some synth message (i.e. the kind of things that real people would never really say) things like “Please be specific – please speak slowly and say the year, followed by the month, followed by day you would like to travel.”

But not my dear Julie, smart as she is. She said, “Do you mean Monday the 18th?”

I said “Yes,” and she said “Great” – when was the last time you heard a computer say “Great?”

Then she asked me when I wanted to leave. I swear I said “About 9:00 AM” and then she said (immediately by the way – I said she was quick to respond and efficient, didn’t I?), “OK, we’ve got a couple of options for you around that time – which one would you like?”

Back to why I love Julie: aside from her speed, I really like the humanness of her interface – Julie pauses at points, her tone and inflection changes, hell, I even expected her to giggle if I told her a joke (well, maybe not at one of my jokes, but you get the point).

Clearly, she’s a combination of a recorded voice and a digital-activation system – but she works. Now that we can digitally store the human voice, thank God we’re beyond the point where people (or maybe only really geeky technical people) thought that computer-generated voices sounded kind of cool – just as for a while there, people thought that digital watches were cool too – big red lithium crystal (or whatever the hell they were) letters that said 10:13 for those of us who couldn’t suss out what time it was based on where Mickey’s big and little hands were at any point in time. Sure, they were new technology, but no, they weren’t very cool.

The only disappointment I had with the AmTrak system, frankly, was when I had to talk to a real human being to give her the details on my AMEX card (Julie couldn’t do this, for good technical reasons I suppose). The real person wasn’t nearly as perky or responsive as my Julie was – she spoke slowly, she spoke with a drawl, and she spoke with an accent that wasn’t easy for me to follow.

Once I’d done that though, I was on my way – in less than the time it would take me to say “graphical user interface,” I had a pre-paid ticket that I could pick up at the station by simply putting my AMEX card into an AmTrak machine and pushing one (one!) button.

(That does suggest a question, doesn’t it? If I can get my ticket with the push of one button, why does it take a real human ticket agent a cacophony of keyboard strokes to get anything out? Why don’t they just swipe my card too?)

Down a set of stairs, and on to the high-speed (mostly) Acella Express to Washington’s Union Station.

As I sit here writing in the relative luxury (lots of luxury compared to the economy section of your friendly air carrier, anyway) of this railcar, sprinting (a train can “sprint” through the countryside and a plane can’t) through Delaware and Maryland I’m wondering why anyone would chose to fly around from city to city on the East Coast…

Back to Julie…it occurs to me that the interface that works best recognizes the way that we humans are set up to work – we should never have to adjust to technology, in fact, it should adjust to us. It’s simply a recognition that, like it or not, our physiology hasn’t changed that much in thousands of years of very slow evolution, whereas the technology we use is evolving much more quickly – let’s make sure to bend the technology to fit around us, not the other way around.

Back to Julie one last time. At the risk of being ungentlemanly, I suggest you try her out. Don’t read this the wrong way, but here it is: For a good time, call Julie at 1-800-872-7245.

Hanley is an IS professional in Calgary. He can be reached at [email protected].

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