Words strain­ing for in­ner de­mons to burst out

The Star Early Edition - - FOOD VERVE -

THE CEN­TURY was an in­fant when I first tried writ­ing with­out typ­ing, writ­ing by speak­ing into a mi­cro­phone on a head­set. It was em­i­nently mind-blow­ing. You’d say a phrase, like “em­i­nently mind-blow­ing”, and there in­stantly was your screen telling you “em­i­nently mind-blow­ing”.

It was a short try nonethe­less – lumpy and awk­ward and too many times that it didn’t quite pro­duce “em­i­nently mind-blow­ing”. It could as eas­ily give you “him in Aunt Hermione bling”, say.

Mis­read­ing a syl­la­ble could send it into a frolic of its own, wan­der­ing off the planet. You want to send the boss’s wife a warm thank-you for din­ner, and read “your mother’s mous­tache has got thin­ner”.

No one can proof­read their own stuff. You know what’s meant to be there, so your eye by­passes an “a” that has be­come “the” or a “con­no­ta­tion” con­verted to “con­tention”, and much be­tween. English has a mil­lion in­no­cent-look­ing words strain­ing for their in­ner de­mon to burst out in vi­o­lent guise. The ca­pac­ity of “not” to be­come “now” or vice versa can start wars or end mar­riages.

My sec­ond try, a decade later, opened un­hap­pily. Speak­ing my re­ply to an email that had smoke com­ing out of my ears, I in­serted a few in­tem­per­ate ep­i­thets that I knew I’d delete on re­vi­sion. There was a take-that! sat­is­fac­tion in blurt­ing them out in the mean­time.

My last sen­tence was go­ing to be “… so ei­ther send the stuff right now or we can­cel the deal”. That’s an ir­ri­tated sen­tence. I sup­pose I said it in an ir­ri­tated way, and on the “send” my screen cleared. Whap. Just like that! Shock! Where was my let­ter? What was hap­pen­ing?

I re­alised in hor­ror that it wasn’t “hap­pen­ing”, it had hap­pened. On the word “send” the ma­chine had du­ti­fully thought “Oh, okay then” and had sent.

The ev­i­dence lurked in sent items, a jagged crude il­lit­er­ate rant, end­ing on the un­punc­tu­ated “ei­ther”. I crawled un­der a stone. For a week or two.

I could hardly blame the ma­chine. I had to credit it with sharp­ened hear­ing. Which, over­all, was a boon, though not with­out other newly cre­ated prob­lems as well.

For one, in its older, deafer days it had taken South African vow­els in its stride. Now I dis­cover sen­tences like: “Are see. Are will do it. Are’ll tell you when are am fin­ished.”

That can’t be me! Are have an ac­cent that once in Texas passed for a clas­sic Bri­tish banker in a ra­dio ad­vert! Are’d love to know what voice recog­ni­tion makes of Leon Schus­ter.

But the er­rors are fewer and the con­ve­nience is great. I’m a per­ma­nent con­vert now. On the way, I bumped into the touch­ing story be­hind voice recog­ni­tion.

A cou­ple, Dr Jim and Dr Janet Baker, spent from 1975 to 1997 get­ting this stuff go­ing. They then, ad­vised by Gold­man Sachs, sold their baby for around half a bil­lion dol­lars, payable as shares in the gi­ant Bel­gian com­pany that bought it. Next thing, the gi­ant Bel­gian com­pany was no longer a gi­ant, and then no longer a com­pany, and the Bakers’ wind­fall van­ished. Up­shot was a suit against Gold­man Sachs, and a five-week trial in 2013. The Bakers lost. In­ven­tors and Pi­o­neers, 0. Bankers, 1.

This comes up now be­cause yes­ter­day my speak­writer upped its game.

I have a cor­re­spon­dent, De­bra, who has al­ways come out as “Deb­o­rah”, fair enough, which I cor­rect by key­board. Now, re­ply­ing to an email, my lap­top de­cided by it­self that she is “De­bra”.

We now know that ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence is now smarter than hu­mans.

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