Speaking machines

talking machines

Our city buses learned to speak a few weeks ago, and you could have knocked me over with a feather.

Partner and I often ride together in the morning, and we’re used to the same things happening every day: the same driver, the same people getting on at the same stops.

Then I heard this odd mumbling voice coming from outside the bus. At first I thought I was imagining things. Then I realized that the voice made sense. “Wickenden and Ives!” it said. “Next stop, Wickenden and Ives!”

Naturally it didn’t pronounce the words very well. WICK-en-den came out WEEKEND-un. It’s a machine. It has no subtlety.

Then it began to announce stops, as follows: “STOP REQUEASTED!”




Well, as I said, it’s a machine.

Do we like things talking to us? Many of us do not. Several studies have shown that people dislike talking machines. If things are almost, but not quite, human – if they exist in the “uncanny valley” between non-human and human – they’re creepy. We want them to be one or the other.

Studies have shown that we react better to women’s robotic voices than to men’s robotic voices, because we find them gentler, less threatening, less bossy. I wonder why the Rhode Island Public Transportation Authority chose men’s voices for their buses? They sound gruff and uninterested. They remind me of the nasal recorded voices I used to hear in Morocco in the 1980s when I rode the trains: “Mesdames et messieurs, nous sommes en train d’arriver a Casablanca . . .”

Which brings us to Siri.

Have you ever spoken to Siri? I have. I find her rather lamebrained. She doesn’t like being sworn at; she has lots of canned responses, like: “Such language!” and “You shouldn’t speak to me like that!” Okay. She often misunderstands me, even when I’m trying very hard to be understood. I ask her for information on Puerto Rico, for example, and she’ll say something like: “Do you want me to search the Internet for ‘What resorts are on Puerto Rico?’”

Now and then she gets it right. Ask her about the weather, or a stock price, and she’s nearly infallible. And she’s very demure about it.

But she sounds – I don’t know – defensive when you ask her anything off the beaten path.

Stupid robot.



About Loren Williams
Gay, partnered, living in Providence, working at a local university. Loves: books, movies, TV. Comments and recriminations can be sent to futureworld@cox.net.

4 Responses to Speaking machines

  1. Siri has been so unhelpful that I never think to ask her anything anymore.

  2. starproms says:

    I have no idea who Siri is? but I smiled at your post today. In the car, in Tennessee, we had Sophie who told us where to go in order to find our destination. It is amazing how adaptable we humans can be. My husband would argue with her, tell her off, not quite swear at her. I like the idea of the talking buses, but soon your brain will just ignore the voices.

    • Siri is the built-in talking assistant in an iPhone. You can address her by name, and she will answer your questions, to the best of her ability. Of course she doesn’t always understand what you’re saying . . .

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