Susie Rushton: Machines we speak to will turn us into idiots

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Time travel, cute robots who behave like pets, jet packs – there are some tropes of sci-fi that never go away. Another Buck Rogers fantasy that endures is talking to your computer. Why automatic speech recognition persists is a mystery to me: it must be one of the most irritating inventions ever foisted on us by science, as anybody who's had to "speak" to a computerised phone banking service knows.

But this winter Apple and Microsoft are determined to push us back to the future. Apple is promoting Siri, its chatty personal assistant application for the iPhone4. The ad shows a smug San Franciscan new-media exec jogging by the Golden Gate Bridge, giving orders to his iPhone as though dictating to Miss Jones. He barks off an inane text message, then commands her to play his music.

Must we now hear text messages being sent? Do we not already listen to too much of other people's mobile conversations? Last week, I had to stop myself from retching in the street after I overheard what turned out to be an off-duty surgeon jauntily describing to a colleague how he would "really have to try to cut hard through the clavicle on that one".

Meanwhile, Siri can also perform internet searches, forecast weather and organise appointments; another ad shows a user asking his phone, "How's my day looking?". Suffice it to say that Siri, beaten-down pre-feminist secretary that she is, does not intone, "Look at your calendar, you lazy arse."

At least Microsoft isn't imposing its own loquacious technology in the public sphere: its push for voice recognition is aimed at Xbox Kinect users. Yes, parents of gamers will have to endure their progeny yelping "Xbox: PLAY DISC. No, PLAY DISC, etc" but at least you'll be able to shut the door on them.

Yet whatever shiny new application it has, I can't help scoffing that speech recognition is duff, and only self-defined "early adopters" will use it. After all, it has been "the future" since the 1950s, when artificial intelligence first began to inspire scientists. Over the decades, they have tried to improve the accuracy of speech recognition and find useful applications – and indeed it has had some success in military environments, for example, and for those with certain disabilities.

But in everyday situations speech recognition sucks. It isn't possible for most of us to give meaningful spoken commands while doing something else with our hands (the only thing I could do with a car while dictating a letter is crash it). The technology still makes errors. And you still look stupid doing it. Most of all, it isn't quicker than a button or touchscreen. Speech recognition gadgets are a fantasy – unfortunately one we'll be hearing a lot more of.

 

Brad's best days are already behind him

Brad Pitt will always have kudos for Seven, Fight Club, Twelve Monkeys and Thelma and Louise, but he hasn't turned in an outstanding acting performance for years. He was fun in Burn After Reading, in which he played a looks-obsesssed himbo (not much of a stretch), and he was similarly agreeable yet vapid in the Oceans franchise. He has six kids and a reputed $150m in the bank – a fortune shared with his gorgeous wife – so when he announces he'll retire in three years' time, you have to ask, why wait?

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