Talking to the Machine

Finally, Software That Gets My Dichotomy — Or Is That Dike Hot to Me?

As compelling as that sounds, however, it's not long before I start to come up against the odd accommodations required by technology. The software is unable to "hear" exactly what I say. The phrase "unfiltered and direct," for instance, with which I ended the last paragraph, originally appeared as "on filters and her act," while "dichotomy" came out as "dike hot to me" when I used it earlier on. Then there are the non-words that come out as indiscriminate bits of verbiage. An accidental sigh is recorded as "ahead," while the rustle of my fingertips against the microphone yields the nonsensical "do for hot and her hot day." There's something intriguing about this, not only because it makes me reconsider the relationship of sounds to language, but because of NaturallySpeaking's strangely adolescent way of turning nearly every misinterpretation into a dirty joke. It's a subtle bit of subversion, the flip side of the sensibility that asks office workers to read aloud from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and, in confronting it, I get the sense that the computer has been possessed by a prankster spirit, albeit one in digital form.

That prankster continues to emerge as the afternoon progresses, especially after the heat impels me to open up my office door. It's a Friday, and the people outside are cleaning up various odds and ends, sorting papers, talking about their weekend plans. Without thinking about it, I begin to speak more softly, but no one pays me much attention; what's surprising, rather, is the way the NaturallySpeaking software seems to listen in on everybody else. Someone drops a book, and the thud appears as "that." A second person starts talking and his syllables create phrases that have nothing to do with what I mean to write. Before I can delete the errant sequence, the mike picks up another ambient burst. "Jesus fucking Christ," I mutter, only to see it show up as "Jesus Fontaine Cranston," a misreading that moves me, finally, to laughter— which NaturallySpeaking deciphers as "perfect effective at the back to."

On the one hand, these are minor problems, correctable by continued training of the software, or finding a quieter place to work. Less easily resolved, though, is the way all this does the opposite of what it's supposed to, which only highlights the ongoing limitations of the electronic age. Were I typing, after all, interpretation would not be an issue; my words would appear as I intended, without having to be "read." But if this isn't writing, then neither does it come with the flow, the rhythm, of speech. For one thing, there's the matter of all that enunciation, which makes you hyper-aware of everything you say. Still more problematic are the expectations we bring to spoken language— that it is part of a conversation between sentient beings. Computers do not engender this, no matter how well they are programmed; they are, instead, essentially lifeless, composed of plastic and circuitry, with no intelligence of their own. As such, using voice recognition software is like performing a monologue, but a monologue where the textures of one's language have been altered to fit the limitations of the medium, rather than the other way around.

illustration: George Bates

In many ways, this piece represents a case in point. My initial intention was to "write" it using NaturallySpeaking, to dictate my ideas directly onto the page. What I encountered, however, were many of the problems that had undermined my novel: overblown sentences, meandering paragraphs, and thoughts that ebbed and flowed in a distressingly conversational way. Ultimately, I rewrote about half of what you've read here, trying to find connection in the rhythm of my keys. On some level, I suppose, that's antithetical— or, as NaturallySpeaking hears it, "and medical"— to the concept of voice recognition, with its insistence on conflating text and speech. And that's the rub. Although we've come a long way since I dictated my novel into a tape recorder, I'll be sticking to my keyboard from now on.

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