Computer Voices Just Don’t Understand

The Memphis Commercial Appeal has an interview with Emily Yellin, author of the recently-published consumer report on customer service call centers, Your Call Is (not that) Important to Us.

Yellin’s book is well-researched and insightful, but not exactly on-topic with this blog. However, part of the interview with Yellin is relevant:

Yellin met the woman who helped give personality to automated response systems, a Boston voice actress who became a pop culture symbol when she became “Amtrak Julie” in 2002. The computerized version of Julie can answer about 13,972 calls a day, while a live Amtrak agent averages about 13,000 calls a year. Julie’s familiar voice begins: “OK. Let’s get started. What city are you departing from?” She has been satirized on “Saturday Night Live,” but has become a standard for modern voice-response systems.

Voice systems go back as far as the 1980s, but Julie is the product of advanced speech recognition technology, which is constantly being refined. Yellin says Julie’s responses were designed in Boston and ran into an early hitch when the system was used by Bell South for the first time.

The company that had programmed Julie taught her to understand what it thought was every version of “yes” and “no,” including uh-huh, nope, yep and other variations. But when Southern callers replied “Yes, ma’am” or “No, ma’am,” Julie, a Yankee, was stumped. She had to be reprogrammed.


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