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The Machine Speaks, and We Cry Out

Toll takers haven't disappeared -- not all of them, anyway. Interactive machines often sound robotic, and users sometimes speak that way to be understood.
Toll takers haven't disappeared -- not all of them, anyway. Interactive machines often sound robotic, and users sometimes speak that way to be understood. (2004 Photo By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)

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By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 25, 2007

Do you hear them, too? The voices?

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You are standing in Aisle 13 of the local supermarket. And automatic voices around you are talking. Sterile, disturbing voices. Repetitious and demanding.

" Your bonus card was not recognized. Please try again."

"Weigh your bananas. Please try again."

A cacophony of commands from electronic voices.

Has anybody else noticed this growing revolution of robotic voices and machines supplanting much of the casual human contact we once had? Disembodied voices telling you your bank balances. Vehicular voices in your car telling you to turn left. Airport voices telling you, "Caution, the moving walkway is ending."

Voices in control, replicating humans, replacing humans.

"The bagging area is full. Please bag some items and continue scanning."

People around you are scanning groceries. A lady in a black coat swipes a soda across the scanner, then pulls out something very old-fashioned to pay for it. She is inserting pennies, one by one, into the machine. Nosily, you note the incongruity -- new machine, old currency -- wondering about peculiar human behavior. The machine interrupts your thoughts:

"Please select your payment method." Repeating insistently until you do what it tells you. "Please remember to take your receipt."

You walk away from the scanner with your bananas and wonder what has society gained with its efficiency? And what has it lost?

Machines doing the work of humans is nothing new. But it often seems their voices are increasing. Getting louder. Popping up in everyday life with urgent frequency. Multiplying. Reproducing little robot babies: the airport, the parking garage, the tollbooth, the elevator, the burger joint drive-through. Deciding whether humans on the telephone can really talk to humans on the other end. Electronic guardians, measuring your worthiness as if they understood your desires.


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