You can call me Metal Brush, unless you’re Hamlet
Sometimes using one’s smartphone is like playing a game of, well, “telephone.” Half the time no one can hear you and when they can, the message gets lost in translation – even when it’s not actually being translated. I’m convinced that mine is actually a “smart-ass phone” given how it willfully drops calls, truncates texts and creates general mayhem in my personal and professional lives.
“Can you hear me?” becomes “Gland doo deer meat?” I sound like a Martian ordering venison.
Perhaps I shouldn’t complain. The fact that one can speak into a rectangular hunk of plastic that beams one’s voice to the heavens and back to whomever you’re calling is pretty damn marvelous. Except when it’s not. And what truly doesn’t work is the voicemail transcription on freebie messaging service Google Voice. Again, I shouldn’t complain – the Mountain View search giant takes my voice messages and spits out text to my phone so I can take action without taking the call. For free. The problem is that their translation mechanism works more like a game of MadLibs with an emphasis on the “mad” part, as in “mad as a hatter” or as Google Voice interprets it, “Man has gone splatter.”
This man has nearly gone splatter off a few rooftops after simply hearing my own name gargled by the Google bots. As one might imagine, “Daedalus” is a voice-recognition time bomb.
On a recent occasion, Google Voice assumed my name was “metal brush.” I don’t even mind “Metal Brush,” which sounds like an ’80s hair band gone literal. What I mind is getting gibberish texted to me instead of my messages. So, I’ve turned off the automatic dispatch and instead check my voicemail like someone from the last millennium. Fortunately, iPhones let you scrub through your messages without having to listen to every second. This is godsend since, no matter, how much my outgoing message emphasizes “leave a brief message,” I get a soliloquy. It’s like having Hamlet call with a question and no intermission in sight.
Google’s been trying really hard to work out their voice recognition for some time. I remember when they were still operating Google 411, which purported to be a telephone directory when in fact it was a huge voice data acquisition tool. Since it knew where you were calling from, it could assess and catalog the nuances of your regional accent. And it was probably recording us so that somewhere there’s a record of me stammering my request for an Indian take-out number in my twee-transcontinental accent (this was before there was an app for that – the curry, not the accent).
Meanwhile, Siri, Apple’s answer to the question, “Can voice recognition just work, for crissakes?” was recently born into a few million iPhone 4Ses. Sadly, this came on the eve of the passing of Steve Jobs (whose name is probably the English translation of whatever language “Siri” is). Consequently, she lost a little of her limelight, though she’s been more than compensated with fawning reviews and loving fan tributes. As can be expected, some wags have made videos of themselves tricking Siri into saying naughty notions chiefly by hacking their own IDs so the phone thinks their names are four-letter words, making it unclear who the joke is really on.
I have yet to upgrade so I’m unsure as to how Siri will destroy the pronunciation of my name or transcribe mine or others’ words.
I do hope, however, the next time Hamlet calls she’ll cut him off with a brisk, “That’s the question, isn’t?” and hang up.
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Daedalus Howell talks to robots at FMRL.com.