Science fiction allows intrepid space explorers to converse with the ship's computers as easily as they do with their human shipmates. Paul Slade discovers that UK banks are about to take one small step in the same direction.
The problem with making telephone transactions using the banks' robot voice recognition systems is that you soon start to sound like a robot yourself.

Asking for a sum of pounds 95.20 to be transferred from your account on 3 November, for example, means giving the amount as "nine, five, two, zero" and date as "zero, three, one, one". The alternative is a touch-tone system that relies on customers transmitting a series of electronic beeps from their telephone keypads.

But new systems, due for trials in January next year, mean we should soon be able to deal with the banks' computers in much the same language we use when chatting to friends or screaming at the kids.

This latest generation of voice-recognition technology should be quite capable of understanding instructions such as "I want to put ten quid into my savings account," or "I want to pay a bill next Tuesday".

Systems like this have been pioneered in America by discount broker Charles Schwab, where callers can already use the phone to buy and sell shares in more than 13,000 different companies entirely by computer.

Although all the major banks are looking at this technology, only Lloyds TSB has so far committed itself to trials. Graham Duke, the group's head of telephone banking, says: "We expect the ability to do basic, simple transactions by ringing something up and speaking to it to become the norm over the next five years."

NatWest already takes about 30 per cent of routine account enquiries through its automatic telephone system, but is not yet ready to commit itself to more flexible technology. "It is the future," says a NatWest spokesman, "but we get such a high volume of incoming calls over the telephone banking network.

"We'll make the change only when we are happy that we can transfer that volume to casual recognition."

Unlike current systems, which rely on recognising a list of perhaps 50 key words, the new technology can learn as it goes along.

It could be taught, for example, to differentiate between "this Tuesday" and "next Tuesday", to understand requests to transfer funds "tomorrow" or even that the question "How much have I got..." means a balance enquiry.

Of course, no matter how good the technology, not everyone will want to talk to a machine rather than a person. Virgin Direct's planned bank account, One, will offer full telephone banking but route calls to human operators rather than machines.

Marketing director Tony Wood says: "A voice system is obviously much cheaper, because you can have many calls coming in at the same time, and you pay a machine rather less of a salary than you do an individual. Our feeling is that customers are real people with real personalities, and they appreciate that from the people at the other end."

Sainsbury and Tesco are also relying on human-staffed call centres for their own fledgling telephone banking operations, although Mr Duke suspects they may switch to automatic systems once the technology has proved itself. "It's faster, quicker and more cost-effective," he says.

Already, there is a financial penalty for TSB customers who want to avoid talking to the bank's machines.

Phonebank Express calls which go to the automatic system are free but Phonebank calls routed to a human operator must be made at local rates. Although there is no reason why the Lloyds TSB system could not be taught to understand slang such as "quid", this may not prove necessary.

Experience with voice systems so far suggests people tend to be on their best behaviour when talking to the bank - even if there is only a handful of microchips to hear them. This raises intriguing questions as to whether this politeness can be extended to a machine that tells you your overdraft request is being denied.

Many UK customers thank their bank's machine when concluding a transaction, and even say "goodbye" before hanging up.

Andrew Shaw, a voice recognition expert who has worked on both the Charles Schwab and Lloyds TSB systems, says American callers are less troubled by these niceties.

Regional accents are a more serious problem. Developing this latest generation of technology has meant identifying no fewer than 19 distinct accents in the UK, all of which the system must be able to recognise.

The 19 UK accents are: South-east, Estuary, East Anglia, South-west, West Country, West Mids, East Mids, Merseyside, Manchester, South/West Yorks, North Yorks, North East, Cumbria/North Lancs, South Wales, North Wales, West Scotland, East Scotland, Rest of Scotland and Northern Ireland. This meant recruiting 2,000 people from across the UK to read a total of 400,000 speech samples into the system. Strangely, it was the West of Scotland accent which required the most work.

One question so far not considered is that of people from ethnic minorities who may speak with a variety of different accents. Presumably, like the Bird's Eye adverts, all Chinese people speak with a Scouse accent.