SMOKE: Chatting To Robots

Originally published: 1 September 2004

automaton (n)
1. A self-operating machine or mechanism, especially a robot.
2. One that behaves or responds in a mechanical way.

Yep - I got me one of those on Monday morning, and I tell you - I'm still more freaked out than if you stuffed me with four caps of the finest LSD known to man and told me my half-brother is Engelbert Humperdinck. While wearing a funny hat and nursing an old slipper to your breast.

On a related theme, and just quickly - if you ever need someone who's good at freaking okes on acid out - give me a call. I consider myself a consummate professional and many's the poor young varsity student who had the misfortune of dropping three microdots before running into me. You should hear them scream when I pull my Lucifer Face. It's a gas.


On Monday morning I had to phone the flight reservations desk to check on the arrival time of Tashi's plane from Johannesburg. I was hoping to get some nice young lady on the other end who would tell me calmly and professionally what time the plane was due, but instead I was given a toll-free number to call and informed that there was no longer any staff to take my call.

The staff has been replaced by machines. Talking ones.

Now I'm no stranger to the concept of voice recognition software - I once wrote a piece of software which allowed my dog to bark into a microphone if she wanted Beenos, but naturally - like all lazy-ass staffers - she abused the privilege, and I had to put it up on ZDNet as a freeware download.

Anyway - I called the tollfree number and an automaton answered. The following conversation ensued:

Robot: Thank you for calling Airports Company South Africa. For flight information press 1.

*I pressed 1. Ring ... ring ... dramatic musical interlude*

Robot: Thanks for calling arrival and departure information. Do you know the flight number? Just say yes or no.

Luke: Yes.

Robot: OK - please say the flight number now.

Luke: SAA 327

Robot: I heard you say 8327 - is that correct? Yes or no?

Luke: No.

Robot (with a wry tone): Mpff - my mistake. Let's get that flight number again. This time please use your telephone keypad to key in the digits of the flight number now, and then press the hash key.

*I keyed in 327 and #*

Robot: Are you looking for arrival or departure information?

Luke: Arrival.

Robot: And is the flight arriving today or tomorrow?

Luke: Today.

Robot: OK - let me get that result for you. South African Airways flight SA327 from Johannesburg to Cape Town has been delayed. It was originally scheduled to arrive at 12:10pm but will now touch down at 2:08pm. Please choose from stop or repeat.

Luke: Stop.

Robot: Would you like to do another search?

Luke: No.

Robot: Thanks for using the automated system. Goodbye.


I tried to say goodbye, but the bastard cut me off.

Now maybe you're asking "So what?", and if you are then you need to read a little more closely - I have just published an intelligent conversation between a human being and a robot, and if you're still asking "So what?" then you've watched too many sci-fi movies, friend.

Last I heard humans talking to robots was only a future concept, but on a Monday morning in late August I called a phone number in Cape Town and had a conversation with one.

And let me tell you this much - I far preferred dealing with my man of tin than I do with the lazy-ass pigs who always find their way to the other end of telephone lines - this oke was smart, articulate, polite and efficient, and the bonus is that he can keep going 24 hours a day until the next ice age descends.

What totally freaked me out was the wry tone he used when admitting his mistake - it was spooky. Big up to whoever the voice artist was - he gave that robot character, but just enough to be professional and not enough to be anyone's dear old mate.

I have one tiny beef with the robot - it gave me the wrong information (I had to wait an hour when I got to the airport). Since its only function was to provide me with the correct information I'd have to conclude that it was rubbish, but that's not the fault of the robot - some dumb human screwed that one up and is now trying to frame the machine.

The point is - back in the 50s they were making movies where people talked to robots, and we're just about there now.

Obviously it will be many a year before you can buy one and have him sit in the lounge with you and have a five-hour debate about the merits of swirling anti-clockwise, but with voice recognition software progressing in leaps and bounds it won't be long before robots are pretty commonplace.

Obviously an automaton is perfectly suited to something like flight arrivals and departures - that's easily be accessed by a computer. You can't have a robot for something which is open to interpretation and questions - it has to be simple, linear information.

CGI animation gets better every day as well and when you link the two together you get interactive animations that can have basic conversations with you.

The big developmental hurdle is still artificial intelligence and applied logic, but hey - we put a couple of guys on the moon, didn't we? We mapped the human genome. We cloned a sheep and transplanted a human heart.

What that nice airport robot represents is the beginning - the beginning of the future becoming the present, if you can work that one out.

One day he'll be an obsolete piece of junk that a kid would sneer at, but right now he's a pioneer for a whole new world in which robots and humans co-exist as the norm.

Just wait for the affirmative automaton action...

All Smoked Out,
Luke Tagg
Spending time online does bad things to a person, but I'm OK.

Look at me now - all the way from Uitenhage to the bright lights of the big internet.

Find out more using the handy links provided.

Copyright © Luke Tagg. All rights reserved. A few lefts as well.

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