Sue Arnold: Warning... It's dangerous to talk to computers

He told her that it had taken him a month to find her 'Playboy' centrefold, she sobbed
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The Independent Online

Computers in 2005, he declared, are in their infancy, which reminded me of that story about the Yorkshire man who went to Paris for the first time. He goes to the Left Bank, the Moulin Rouge, a couple of brothels in Montparnasse. When he gets back home and down to the pub where his pals are bursting to hear all about it, he tells them wearily that if nothing else his experiences in Paris have taught him one thing - that fornication in Huddersfield is in its infancy.

The next milestone, according to Microsoft, is a computer with which you can have an intelligent conversation. Like Hal in that Stanley Kubrick film, I suppose. On second thoughts, Hal was a bit too snide and spooky for the purposes of everyday chat. Ask him to look up the nearest decent Chinese takeaway and son of Hal will probably refer you to the latest EU directive limiting the import of Chinese merchandise.

"My suggestion, Susan," I can hear that silky voice from the bowels of my laptop reply, "would be a kebab, a curry or even as an expression of solidarity with our beleaguered friends in America awaiting the arrival of Hurricane Rita, a tasty Tex Mex."

I don't want to talk to a computer. I want to talk to real people, intelligent people like Christopher Hitchins or Howard Jacobson. Lively, witty people whose conversation bristles with irony and bons mots and the sort of casual off-the-cuff observations that Miss Austen might have made after a visit to No 10: "All that one can say with certainty is that Mrs Blair belongs to that numerous class of females whose society can raise no other emotions than surprise at there being any men in the world who could like them enough to marry them." Try teaching a computer to say that.

But we're jumping the gun. The first thing you have to do is to teach the computer to listen. My local hospital has just installed a new voice-activated computerised telephone system which asks you to say the name of the doctor, the ward or the department you want to speak to. Outpatients 3, I said. "I'm sorry, I didn't catch that," said the computer. "Please try again." I tried again. "I am unable to understand you," said the computer. "Please speak clearly." In the end it put me through to prosthetics - not a bad idea as I obviously need a new voice.

Before you remind me of the manifold benefits that the technological revolution has heaped on our society worldwide, let me tell you a short cautionary tale. Friends of ours are going through what is usually called a rough patch in their marriage. He is something in the City; she gave up modelling to look after their three children. He works all hours, makes a fortune and wants a bit of fun when he comes home. She wants to listen to Book at Bedtime, in bed.

The upshot is that after supper he goes to the study with a bottle of whisky to surf the net looking for archive pictures of his virtual wife who used to be a glamour model, while his actual wife, still pretty glamorous, is lying upstairs in bed waiting for him to come up sober enough to do something about mending the rift in their relationship.

How do you know that's what he's doing, I asked last time she came over for lunch and a weep. Because apparently that morning he told her at breakfast that it had taken him a month to find her Playboy centrefold, she sobbed.

Computers are machines, not companions, and the sooner mothers warn their children that talking to PCs is as dangerous as talking to strange men in cars the better.

The biggest danger of all is that the more we talk to computers, the more we will start sounding like them. The people at my bank already do. "I am unable to process your request because we are experiencing technical difficulty obtaining the necessary information to facilitate this transaction," said the female voice I was speaking to on the phone. She could easily have been a machine until, when she thought I had hung up, I heard her say: "Bloody hell, Tina, my computer's buggered again."

And what about Kevin at Trainline, who informed me that he was not contractually obliged to speak to members of the public. I wonder if that's what he says to his wife.