A man in a hat looking at the camera

Technology - What goes around comes around

Roger Simmonds talks about his struggles with modern voice-activated gadgets.

Many years ago, I had to visit a man in London every week. He had ‘cured’, he said, a well-known 1950s comedian of his stammer and, given a small fee, he could do the same for me. 

In those days, railway tickets couldn't be pre-ordered, they had to be asked for. At a kiosk. There was no escape. This was terrifying and I remember all too well the queues forming behind me as I stood there grimacing and gesticulating. Impatience I could handle; pity was more difficult.  

However, help was at hand. Underground stations introduced the latest technological marvel: an automated ticket machine! I could now, without having to speak, visit art galleries and museums, which were free with not a ticket booth in sight! So, visits to London were not now without their compensations. Which was just as well, as 'the man' in London succeeded only in upping my speech-related fears and anxieties, and by the time I went to college, coherent speech was all but impossible. 

If the phone rings, do I pick it up? Would the person on the other end think I was a 'heavy breather'?

Fortunately, by this time there were many more stammer-friendly ways to buy the things a student needs, and many more supermarkets where you didn't need to ask for anything at all. Life was good. However, the shared student accommodation held an object of great fear: a telephone! If it rings, do I pick it up? Would the person on the other end think I was a 'heavy breather'? As for making calls, operators were gracious but could not, alas, second guess the numbers I was stuck on.

Somehow I survived the many speech obstacles an academic career put in my path, but it wasn't easy and there were many frustrations - for example, being unable to share my experimental results with the panache their brilliance required. 

help or hindrance?

Again, help was at hand. Computers enabled online discussion, and much talking could be avoided by using the internet to share data, plan meetings, search the literature, and even – a hitherto impossible task – order a takeaway pizza. There were days when I didn't need to talk to anybody at all. This was indeed progress towards a less stressful way of working but, in my heart of hearts, I wondered if some experts in artificial intelligence couldn't fix me up with a dedicated machine as they had done for Steven Hawking. It would be wonderful to be that fluent.  

Unfortunately, the technology so helpful for Steven Hawking was now developing in a direction decidedly unhelpful to people who stammer. For example, instead of having to press a selection of buttons on your phone to get through to what you wanted (a tedious but stammer-friendly process), you now had to "state clearly the service you require", or worse, "please say the numbers clearly".  Inevitably, this was followed by "I'm sorry, I did not understand, please repeat", It was a relief (something of a first for me!) to get through to a real person.

"Alexa", I intoned, "which idiot thought voice-controlled machines a good idea?"

But worse was to follow. Some bright spark thought it a good idea to be able to talk to our laboratory computer. Speak clearly, and it would automatically compile sentences of recognisable English. Only, with me, it didn't. Even using a Polish accent (a very bad habit I have tried to stop) didn't help. Not to beat about the Borsch, I had to abandon all pretence of being an up-to-date technophile. I was pleased when I retired and could leave all that nonsense behind. 

Except it seems to have followed me! My own PC can be voice activated and I can, they say, tell my sat-nav where I want to go. Except I can't. It deliberately misunderstands me. And telling it to "go to hell" doesn't help at all. For a person who finds talking quite hard work, voice-controlled machines are a horrible idea. Is the world heading back to how it was fifty years ago, when the vast majority of the things I needed had to be asked for? Except mostly I couldn't, and mostly I didn't. How's this for irony: the machines that had hitherto made life easier for me are now making it harder! I resolved to keep away from all these scary devices.  

But then the grandchildren came round and connected up the latest technological marvel – an Amazon Echo device. "Ask it a question, Granddad", they said. "It knows everything". Except, apparently, the smell of fear. It took me some time, even in a quasi-Polish accent. "Alexa", I intoned, "which idiot thought voice-controlled machines a good idea?". There was a pause. "I'm sorry, I do not understand", she (it's difficult not to anthropomorphise) finally responded, "Please repeat". And I'm standing there, frozen with panic. I can feel the long line of frustrated rail commuters behind me waiting to buy their tickets. 

Two women in running outfits holding flags and looking at the camera
Tayo & Bhupinder
A speaker on stage at STAMMAFest 2023

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