Gene Weingarten: Playing telephone

October 6, 2011

Because he is a modern man, my editor, Tom the Butcher, enthusiastically avails himself of new technologies such as Google’s voice-recognition system for phone and computer. Now, when Tom gets a voice mail message on his phone, he not only receives an e-mail alert but also reads the message itself as an e-mail sent to him by Google. And thus it is that, at 4:16 p.m. on Sept. 13, Tom was alerted to the fact that I had left him this voice mail:

“Hey, your ass is in the interest river.”

I often say odd things to Tom, but this seemed a little too odd. So he then listened to the original voice mail. What I’d actually said was:

“Hey, ask me about the tree-trimmer.”

Yes, indeed. It turns out Google’s vaunted voice-recognition software may be the most comically misbegotten invention since a man named Hans Laube patented something named Smell-O-Vision. At critical plot moments, Smell-O-Vision released relevant scents into the movie theater. Smell-O-Vision was used in one film, in 1960, and it flopped. Google voice-recognition software stinks, too.


(Illustration by Eric Shansby)

Perhaps you are thinking that it is uncharitable of me to savage Google merely on the basis of one botched call. And you would be right; but, as it happens, I have in fact conducted extensive research into this subject, in a two-pronged investigative approach. Prong one was interviewing Tom, who estimates that Google intelligibly interprets his voice messages 5 percent of the time. He keeps using it, though, for the entertainment value, and because it is free. “It’s worth every penny,” he says.

Prong two was an experiment. Tom turned off his phone, and I left him a series of voice messages — the sort of messages you would really want to see, pronto, exactly the sort of messages for which Google voice-recognition software was designed.

My first message was: “Tom, I’ve locked myself in the linen closet, and I’m afraid I might asphyxiate. Please send help immediately.” Google translated this as: “Tom, I lost my cellphone in the linen closet, and I’m afraid I might add 58. Please dispatch help of media.”

My second message: “Tom, this is Gene. I am sorry to have to inform you of this, but I am having a torrid sexual liaison with your wife.” This became: “Tom, this is Gene. I am sorry to have to inform you of this, but I’m heading towards at Holyfield’s with your wife.”

Next, I confessed to Tom that I am “seriously biased against Episcopalians and write lies about them.” Google turned this into: “I’m secretly biased against what we can pinpoint and let you know we white lies about.”

In a similarly confessional tone, I revealed that “President Obama personally gave me money to write nice things about him, and to call Dick Cheney a satanic monster.” This became: “I talked with Hobart personally gave me money to write nice things about some of the called. The training is sick time.”

My last message was breathless, from a woman who said she was hot for Tom but embarrassed to be making the call, and would not call back. But if Tom wanted to reach out to her, she would submit to him, over and over again. Google actually got most of that message right, except for the woman’s name. “I am calling to Hanson,” it said, instead of “I am Scarlett Johansson.”

Because I am a responsible journalist, I decided to give Google a chance to respond to these charges. But as anyone knows who has ever tried to reach Google customer service, it is notoriously impossible to speak to an actual human. So I sent an e-mail. But I first called my message in to Tom’s voice mail, got the translation, and e-mailed that translated message to Google.

What I wanted to ask was: “Google, do you think it’s possible that your voice-recognition software came out prematurely, like a lifetime achievement award for Lindsay Lohan, resulting in a tool about as useful as a hammer made of marshmallows, or a corduroy condom?”

It came out: “… like a lifetime achievement award for Wednesday. Hey, Dan, we’re hoping it’s a little bit useless ever made of marks mail or quarterly condo.”

I sent it in but for some reason got no response.

SECTION: {section=lifestyle, subsection=magazine}!!!
INITIAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=bg52e9xhqr, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, comments_period=3, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=15, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=3, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!!

UGC FROM ARTICLE: {allow_comments=true, allow_photos=false, allow_videos=false, comments_period=3, comments_source=washpost.com, default_sort=, default_tab=, display_comments=true, is_ugc_gallery=false, max_items_to_display=3, max_items_to_display_top=15, moderation_required=false}!!!

FINAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=bg52e9xhqr, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, comments_period=3, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=15, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=3, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!
Comments
SECTION: {section=lifestyle, subsection=magazine}!!!
INITIAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=bg52e9xhqr, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, comments_period=3, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=15, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=3, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!!

UGC FROM ARTICLE: {allow_comments=true, allow_photos=false, allow_videos=false, comments_period=3, comments_source=washpost.com, default_sort=, default_tab=, display_comments=true, is_ugc_gallery=false, max_items_to_display=3, max_items_to_display_top=15, moderation_required=false}!!!

FINAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=bg52e9xhqr, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, comments_period=3, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=15, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=3, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!
Show Comments