Voice Recognition Technology

Everyone knows about Siri, the voice recognition software that, over the course of the past two years, has gained some pretty impressive capabilities. Google Voice has some equally impressive technology behind it, too. (Although its transcription process is far from perfect. The Humanist Hour Podcast sometimes makes fun of what they call the “Google Garble” for its mistranscriptions…)

But those are some of the more visible examples. There are companies that have replaced the old “Press 1 for This Department” with a voice recognition technology.

This, then, leads me to a telemarketing call I received earlier today; this is not the first time I’ve gotten a call like this, but it’s the first time I put a hypothesis I’ve had, to the test about it.

It always starts off the same. A male voice that definitely sounds like it’s been recorded says “Hi, this is {the name changes each time}. How are you today?”

Because it sounds recorded, my response has been consistent: “Are you a human being?”

With a somewhat stiff-sounding laugh, “he” says, “Yes, I’m a human being” and proceeds with the spiel.

This is where I should mention that I can’t hang up on people. That’s how my parents raised me and I can’t break it, even on people who deserve it. I have no such compunctions, though, about computers.

Usually about a sentence or two into the spiel, I come to realize that it’s a recording and I hang up. I didn’t do that today. I said, “I don’t believe you.”

That set the voice recognition technology a little bit off and it tried to get back into the spiel. That’s when I pushed it and said, “Name the President of the United States.”

It objected to that question on the grounds of professionalism.

I said that I wouldn’t believe that it was a human being unless it told me the name of the president of the United States.

It reasserted that it was a human being.

I repeated my stance. If the entity on the other end of the phone was really a human being, it would need to name the President of the United States.

That’s when the entity on the other end terminated the call.

However annoying that whole exchange was, I’ve got to admire the voice recognition technology in light of the fact that I’m obviously not the only person who thinks that the “person” who called me, is a computer…

And now I know how to handle it next time…


A Response from Senator Toomey

Back on September 29, I blogged that I had sent an email to Senator Pat Toomey in response to one of his regular emails to his constituents. While I can’t be certain how he obtained my email address, an educated guess would be that he received it as a part of the transition to senator from his predecessor, Sen. Arlen Specter.

On November 8, I received a response from him, quoted verbatim below:

Dear Mr. Phynn,
Thank you for contacting me about the government shutdown and the debt limit. I appreciate hearing from you.

Recently, an impasse over the funding of the president’s health care law resulted in a government shutdown. Some members of Congress pledged not to support legislation to fund the government (a continuing resolution or any other appropriations legislation) that did not include language which completely defunded the president’s health care law. While I staunchly oppose the president’s health care law and support its full repeal, I believe it was impractical to expect President Obama to sign legislation that would effectively negate what he considers to be his signature accomplishment.

In an attempt to break the all-or-nothing standoff, I proposed a way to fund the government and to repeal some of the most egregious parts of the president’s health care law. I sought to offer three amendments to the Senate’s proposed continuing resolution: the first would have repealed the medical devices tax that is costing Pennsylvania jobs; the second would have provided relief from the infringement on religious liberty in the health care law; the third would have delayed the individual mandate for one year. All three items had bipartisan support, could have passed the Senate, and might well have been acceptable to the House. Unfortunately, the Democratic leadership would not permit me to offer these reasonable amendments, and the impasse was not resolved in time to prevent the government from shutting down on October 1st.

After sixteen days of negotiations, Senate leadership was able to produce legislation that garnered enough support to temporarily fund the government until January 15, 2014. The major redeeming aspect of this bill was that it reopened the government, and I am glad it got the shutdown behind us.

Unfortunately, the measure also included a provision to suspend any limits on the government’s ability to accumulate debt through February 7, 2014. One of the reasons we have a debt limit is that it forces Congress to debate and re-examine the policies that have put our country so far in the red. Since arriving in the Senate I have argued that spending as usual is very damaging to our economy, and have advocated for using the debt limit as a reasonable opportunity to push for serious fiscal reform. In 2011, the president was willing to negotiate with members of Congress. In exchange for the $2.1 trillion in new debt he sought, the president agreed to limit future discretionary spending in the Budget Control Act (P.L. 112-25). Unfortunately, this fall, the president refused to even discuss any curbs on spending.

I could not support piling hundreds of billions of dollars of new debt on current and future generations of Americans without even a sliver of reform or any new spending restraints to start putting our fiscal house in order. It is for this reason that, on October 16, 2013, I voted against the final bill which passed the Senate by a vote of 83-18. Shortly after, the House passed the measure by a vote of 285-144, and it was signed into law by the President early on October 17th.

Thank you again for your correspondence. Please do not hesitate to contact me in the future if I can be of assistance.

I think it’s safe to say that Sen. Toomey didn’t read the email I had sent to him. This is little more than a regurgitation of the talking points he has espoused in his numerous public appearances and on the various news outlets willing to give him a visible platform. And it galls me to think that he is trying to come off as sounding like a hero in staving off a longer shutdown that he helped to bring about in the first place.

I think the most ridiculous part of the whole thing is his comments about the infringement upon religious liberty that has been caused by the law. Is he serious? Freedom of religion doesn’t give anyone the right to impose their religion on other people. There are no encroachments upon religious liberty when you ask that women have access to basic healthcare services, such as birth control. Where do you draw the line here? Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t believe in blood transfusions, but I would think that an insurance plan that didn’t cover that would be not only medically negligent, but also criminally negligent. What about Scientology’s distaste for psychiatry? Should they be allowed to keep mental health clinics out of their plans? Let’s take that to an extreme. Some Orthodox Jews take Leviticus 19:19 seriously and do not mix their fabrics. What kinds of impositions would an Orthodox Jewish health care plan impose upon the garb of doctors and nurses in the operating room? Would the mixture of latex gloves and cotton scrubs be a problem?

Whatever good or bad things are in the healthcare law — grandfather clauses or not — the question of religious liberty is not one of them. Exceptions are granted to churches but just because someone happens to follow a certain faith does not give them the right to impose the teachings of that faith upon their employees. This is not standing up for religious liberty. It’s being a dick.

But then again, I’d expect no less from Pat Toomey.