Nothing Will Ever Replace the Human Voice


Since the creation of the first Turing machines during the Second World War, nothing has shaped the relationship between Man and his work as profoundly as our relationship with computers. While we are used to seeing computers perform vital automation and calculation tasks, the 21st century promises a new age of computing as we draw ever closer to the perfection of AI technology. While the efficiency of automation has been proven time and again in perfunctory roles, it is still unknown how society will react to widespread automation in the tertiary sector.

The Problem with Automated Voice Recognition

One of the areas of the service industry in which this automation has already started to appear is in call answering services. While these services have already come a long way from their first appearances in the late 1990’s, they still prove to be widely unpopular among the general public. The many tiers of questions automated systems require customers to go through result in much longer call times for customers, and this situation is only exacerbated when voice recognition software fails to recognise voice prompts correctly. These systems may prove to be highly efficient for businesses, but they go to show how the binary thinking of computers is still juxtaposed to the human thought process and results in dissatisfied customers.

The Success of Siri, Alexa, and Cortana

While voice responsive call handling services have become a bugbear for many, the introduction of voice recognition software into phones and tablets has proved to be overwhelmingly popular in recent years. The computerised voices that were once the realm of science fiction are now ubiquitous with each of us carrying our very own voice activated personal assistant in our pocket. Whether it’s Siri, Cortana, or Google’s eponymous Google, it is now common place for people to interact with their device using just their voice. The popularity of IVR (interactive voice response) technology in our phones has even led Amazon and Google to lead the charge in the automation of our homes through their interactive home hubs the Amazon Echo and Google Home.

Can IVR Work in Business?

The technology on display in these devices is certainly impressive, and it is easy to feel like we are living in the age of the machine, however look a little closer and it is clear to see how far we still are from true AI. While devices like Amazon Echo and Google Home are breaking new ground in terms of hands free interaction with our devices, just from watching the promotional videos for these products it is easy to see they are doing little more than performing basic tasks and relaying the information aurally rather than visually. Although they are great to have around the home for note taking and a quick Google search, they are far from ready for complicated business application.

IVR, Paralinguistics, and the Issue of Trust

The contrast between the popularity of IVR in hand held devices, and the disdain for IVR call answering services shows that while people are happy for voice recognition to be used in passive roles like note taking, they are still inherently uncomfortable when they feel they are at the whim of a computer system.

The problem with voice recognition technology is that while it may understand the words people say, it completely ignores the paralinguistic information that goes along with it. Paralanguage, or paralinguistic information, is additional information that is provided through our speech via none semantic elements like pitch, inflection and speed. Our ability to understand the paralinguistic information relayed to us is vital to fully understanding what someone is trying to say. No utterance can be made without paralanguage so the fact that IVR systems are unable to understand this means they miss a great deal of what it means to have a human conversation. It is this aspect of automated systems that gives them their uncanny and sometimes eerie feel, and causes so many people to find them untrustworthy.

An IVR system can’t read the inflection in a customer’s voice, won’t recognise when a customer is angry or disappointed, and can’t adjust their responses accordingly to fit the tone of a given conversation. It is no surprise then that the public generally find it harder to trust these automated systems than they do a real customer service agent, as is shown in this article and study by Jacob Groshek for the Huffington Post. If the first interaction a customer has with a company is via a system that is proven not to be trusted, the overall perception of that company will inevitably be lowered by that initial point of contact.

The Effect of Automation on Career Opportunity

Another concern that many people have about IVR is that it will eventually lead to ending careers for people in customer service positions. Historically, people have always shown concern that employment will become difficult in the face of automated processes. Trends in employment however show that many careers have been enhanced by technological advances. While research shows customers are always going to prefer to talk to another person than a machine, the possibility for IVR to assist in day to day administrative duties via voice activated system operation will undoubtedly improve efficiency in businesses once it is perfected.

As technology advances it is inevitable that the more rudimentary tasks of running businesses will end up being automated. Despite this, there will never be a time when a business doesn’t require a public face, or the human spark of invention and creativity. The overwhelming opposition from the general public to the automation of their interaction with businesses shows just how important real human interaction still is. No amount of technological advance will be able to take that away, no computer program can replace real human interaction, and nothing will ever replace the human voice.

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