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

Share
Related Topics

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.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Photographer / Floorplanner / Domestic Energy Assessor

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Photographer/ Floor planner /...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Surrey - £40,000

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Guildford/Craw...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Assistant

£13500 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Assistant is...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £35,000

£16000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious and motivated Sale...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband hasn’t ‘suddenly’ become a robust leader. He always was

Steve Richards
 

Costa Rica’s wildlife makes me mourn our paradise lost

Michael McCarthy
Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence