Magazine article The Spectator

Devolution of the Human Brain

Magazine article The Spectator

Devolution of the Human Brain

Article excerpt

Ominous predictions could be heard on Radio Four on Saturday morning in a programme hosted by Rory Bremner. If by chance you missed it, having already dragged yourself out for your weekly exercise run or trip to Sainsbury's, here's why Speak on the Dotted Line made me feel more than a little queasy. One day soon we may no longer be a nation of shoppers; well, not in the old-fashioned sense of cash tills and wire baskets, paper money or plastic cards. Instead you'll be able to pick up the phone, order what you want, and pay for it simply by talking at a voice-recognition machine, which will then instruct your bank to withdraw money from your account.

Nothing real will change hands; there'll be no interpersonal communication.

Computer whizz-kids are developing the technology so that a new breed of magic boxes will be able to identify differences of tone, accent, phrasing in the human voice, which can then be locked into an electronic memory. No need for the caller to remember passwords, unique number codes, mother's maiden name. All you will have to do is utter a few words, any words, in any sequence, for your unique 'voiceprint' to be recognised by these supremely sophisticated machines. Soon we won't need to remember anything; except the password to cut through our own burglar alarms at home. One more step in the devolution of the human brain.

And there'll be no need to feel guilty for letting off steam to an unsuspecting customer services agent. Since you are speaking not to a living, breathing human being but to a box full of plastic-coated wires and soldered metal, it will not be troubled by any outbursts of frustration or lapses of behaviour. Even your drunk voice will be easily identifiable because of that unique 'voiceprint' so a degree of caution may be advised. Ring up slightly tipsy after a flighty night and you may find next day that you have transferred thousands of pounds into your ex-partner's account.

These new ultra-clever computers will also be able to make conversation, adapting what they say to what they have just heard. Already Amtrak's automated traininquiry computer has been so successful at responding to travellers' questions in America that she's acquired a personality and a name, 'Amtrak Julie'. …

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