Simon Kelner: The de-personalising trend of talking gadgets

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The Independent Online

Iwas brought up in a household whose soundtrack was Radio 4. My mother always had the wireless on, so daily life was conducted to the background noise of all those dreary middle-class voices (and, bear in mind, this was long before Winifred Robinson hit the airwaves).

For the average household today, there's a different sound that's just as ubiquitous and possibly even more annoying than "You and Yours". It's the incessant whirring, chirping and bleeping of electrical appliances. If it's not the dishwasher, it's the washing machine; if not text-message alerts, then it's a computer shutting down. And then we get in our cars and a disembodied voice tells us where to go, so to speak. We are in an age when we seem to like our gadgets to talk to us. Perhaps it gives us a sense of certainty in an unpredictable world – have you tried arguing with your sat-nav? – but it does add to the general sense of de-personalisation in our everyday exchanges.

And now comes news of another electronic device designed to talk to us – the speaking plate that tells you whether you're eating too much, or too quickly. I thought this device was called a mother or a wife, but no. The Mandometer, which weighs in at a hefty £1,500, is being used in a pilot scheme by the NHS as part of its effort to combat Britain's increasing obesity problem. The computer-generated voice will ask questions that most of us would ordinarily regard as highly impertinent – "Are you feeling full yet?" – or give us instructions – "Please eat more slowly".

Apparently, the speaking plate has already achieved impressive results, particularly with children, but imagine how much more successful it could be if it played into young people's obsession with celebrity. If you had Russell Grant saying: "One more mouthful, sonny, and you'll end up looking like me." Or Eamonn Holmes warning: "Look what happens, kids, if you bolt your food." If Jeremy Clarkson was lined up to be the voice of the sat-nav, why not? And why not have a recorded message on cigarette packets? The sound of Frank Gallagher of Shameless coughing and wheezing through a couple of short sentences would surely be more effective than the "Smoking Kills" suggestion.

The march of the robot voice is inexorable, so we might as well just get with it. I have just taken possession of a new iPhone with the Siri software that enables you to ask the phone to perform a function – call or text someone, for instance. It also answers questions you may have. "Will it rain today?" "What's the capital of Uganda?" "Who is the current Prime Minister of Greece?" Not only does it supply all the answers, it does so in polite mid-Atlantic tones, using your own first name.