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Technology Gone Awry . . . Hal, Meet Sam

by Jon Kaufman

Ever been scolded by a person who does not exist?  Thanks to the wonders of technology, such an encounter is not only possible, it’s probable. Approaching my fifty-third year on the planet, I am constantly amazed how the world has changed since the year of my birth (1958). Imagine a time when a gallon of gas sold for twenty-five cents, the average home cost approximately $2400 dollars, and a “cell” phone was the one sturdy bolted to the wall pay unit in which thousands of convicts deposited their nickels to reach the outside world.

The wireless industry, in which I am employed, changes like the weather patterns in South Florida. i.e. if you don’t like the climate, wait a few minutes.  The new rage in the world of wireless is the creation, sale and implementation of applications for one’s cellular handset or tablet.  Whether you carry an Android, iPhone or BlackBerry in your pocket, there are geniuses around the world giving birth to an app which you positively cannot do without.

These magical gizmos span from the ridiculous to the sublime.  For around ninety-nine cents you can download a gadget that charts your business vehicle mileage, reads books aloud or even blows out the candles on your birthday cake.  Honestly folks, if you can’t summon enough wind to snuff out a small flame, your issues are a tad more serious than any download will cure.

Despite the tsunami of instruments available, the industry has struggled mightily with one cherished component for years; Voice recognition.  Whether you are battling a robot voice when trying to reach a customer service representative for human assistance or you are attempting to have your cell phone provide information or complete a task, voice recognition software has gotten the better of all of us.  Remaining calm when this software is unable to decipher a simple command, is a mind numbing horror that the folks back in 1958 could only dream about.

In the 1968 science fiction classic, 2001 A Space Odyssey, an astronaut asks HAL (the villainous monotone voiced computer) to “open the bay doors,” instigating an argument between the space voyager and the evil mainframe who refuses to obey the order. How different would the movie have been if HAL responded “Did you say “oven the clay boars?” or “Pope on the gray floor.” I imagine the astronaut might have eventually hurled himself into space rather than continue further futile banter with a machine.

Currently, I am testing two voice recognition programs which are equally confounding. I am not certain what prompted me to take on this assignment, perhaps I hoped such a challenge might earn me a few months of rest in a sunny facility with soft walls.

The first app allowed me to create an avatar (a cartoon character, not one of those big blue critters from the movie).  My “assistant,” was a comely young lady with dark hair and blue eyes, (I can dream can’t I?). All of the avatars assumed the androgynous name Sam, in case a male assistant was the end user’s preference.  Pleased with my creation, I proceeded to the voice recognition testing phase.

Immediately, Sam understood my voice patterns fairly well.  I asked her simple questions like, who is the President of the United States and where could I find the least expensive gas in Lynchburg and she deftly answered in cohesive sentences. Becoming comfortable, I suggested that Sam relax and take off her shoes. Without missing a beat she coyly replied, “I didn’t realize that this job is clothing optional.”

Stunned and a little embarrassed, I apologized for my un-gentlemanly behavior and offered her the rest of the day off.  Sadly, I caught myself begging forgiveness from my cell phone, which is a new low even for me.

Confused and ashamed, I said goodbye to Sam, however, the app would not turn off!  I followed with goodbye, so long, see you tomorrow, bye-bye, and buenos noches, yet Sam stared at me refusing to budge. Was there mutiny afoot?  Was Sam my HAL?

I began to become uneasy. I tried the phase “turn off,” which yielded only a blank stare from Sam, whose arms were now crossed. Desperate, I shouted “OFF,OFF,OFF!” to which Sam replied, and I quote, “Jon, where did all of this hostility come from?”  Dumbfounded, I looked at the phone for a second, thinking to myself, “Did that just happen?” I then turned the phone off and took the battery out for good measure.

Later that evening, I told my wife Janet about my strange cyber encounter, and, as expected, she sided with Sam. Technology mirroring life I suppose? Things were so much easier back in 1958. Goodnight Sam, call me.

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