At a recent press gathering, a public relations man asked me to try out one of the new automotive PCs. “Sit in the driver’s seat and talk to it,” he said, smiling brightly. “Tell it to do something simple—like calling your office.”
So I dictated my office phone number to the dashboard. “Six...nine...eight... zero...four...eight...eight,” I said.
There was a pause, and a female voice in the dashboard said, “Six.” Then the voice stopped. We waited, but it didn’t say anything else.
“Maybe you’re talking too fast,” the public relations man said, still smiling. “Talk slower.”
So I talked slower. Again it replied, “six,” and stopped.
A crowd gathered as we repeated the process a few more times with the same result. Finally, the public relations man gave up. “Maybe there’s too much background noise,” he said sheepishly.
I didn’t want to embarrass him, but I have to admit that I was a bit skeptical about the system’s chances for near-term success. And it has nothing to do with the oft-repeated criticism of people not needing PCs in their cars. If recent history has proven anything, it’s that consumers find uses for PCs.
No, my reason for skepticism can be summed up in three simple words: speech recognition technology.
I’ve been using speech recognition for almost four years. During that time, I’ve dictated tens of thousands of sentences to it, and can vouch for the fact that no technology gives odder results.
If you don’t believe me, consider the following sentence written by my speech recognition system: “In many cases, finite element analysis work will be off-loaded to high performance soup kitchens.”
Or this: “The EPIC electric minivan uses lead-acid bathrooms.”
Or this: “The system’s efficiency is a function of its dwarf output.”
During my years on Design News, I’ve written many strange stories. But I’ve never written about FEA being off-loaded to soup kitchens (it should have said “workstations”). Nor do I believe that EPIC minivans have lead-acid bathrooms (should be “batteries”) or that a system’s efficiency is dependent upon its dwarf output (should be “work”).
Yet, if I blindly relied on my speech recognition system, this magazine would be loaded with stories about soup kitchens, dwarfs, and bathrooms.
Syrians, too. It seems that my speech recognition system prefers to place the word “Syrians” at the end of every sentence, instead of a “period.” So I end up with sentences like this one: “If you want to eliminate prototypes and shorten your design cycles, then you’re going to need a high performance workstation Syrians.”
Occasionally, it also replaces “period” with “series,” “serious,” “seriousness,” and, inexplicably, “Turks.” In terms of sheer numbers, though, those mistakes pale by comparison to its use of the word “Syrians.” (Don’t ask me why it prefers “Syrians” to “Turks.” I can only assume it has something to do with the fall of Constantinople.)
I could go on and on, but we don’t have enough room here to list all its different mistakes. The point is, speech recognition technology still has its problems. And because automakers are espousing an “eyes on the road, hands on the wheel” philosophy, those problems could affect the quality of dashboard PCs.
I’m not sure what that’s going to mean for automakers. But if Ford and GM think they’re getting some strange service calls now, wait until the first time someone phones a mechanic and says, “My car called me a dwarf.”
Those kinds of calls are going to wreak havoc in their service departments. And they won’t do much for their placement in J.D. Power’s initial quality surveys, either. (I can just see the headline: “Dwarfs ruin GM quality.”)
And, please, automakers, don’t use the old “background noise” excuse. All vehicles are subject to background noise. If you don’t believe me, then I’ve got four kids who will be happy to teach you about the subject.
If you’re determined, though, go ahead and give us those automotive PCs. Who knows? By the time they reach the market, maybe speech recognition systems will have advanced to the point where they can tell the difference between a bathroom and a battery.
In the meantime, though, I’d offer this advice: Wait until the bugs have been worked out of speech recognition. Otherwise, better beware, Syrians.