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The 411 on Google's Free 411

An experimental Google service that's drawn some blog chatter recently lets you use the search engine from your phone. Not your cell phone's measly little Web browser, but any old phone, even some rotary-dial antique.

Google Voice Local Search, an automated directory-assistance system, operates by voice alone. You call the toll-free number, 800-466-4411--that is, 800-GOOG-411--from any phone, say the city and state of the listing, the business name or category you want, and Google's computers read out the matching listings.

Like others, I found that Google's voice-recognition technology needs some work. When I tried looking up the phone number for the Arlington restaurantTallula, Google informed me that "there is no direct match, but here are some related listings."

The first was a stuffed-animal emporium in Ballston, the second was the restaurant, and the third was a government contractor in Rosslyn. Unlike Google 411's voice prompts--all recorded human speech, voiced in a relentlessly soothing monotone--these business names were "spoken" by computer synthesis, making some hard to decipher.

Google can connect you directly to the listing you want, or you can say "details" to have its address and phone number read to you. If you're calling from a cell phone, you can say "text message" to get that info sent to your phone--in my case, the message arrived before I could hang up on Google.

Google's 411 service had worse luck in a second test, failing to understand my pronunciation of "Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey" in repeated attempts.

I suppose directory-assistance employees don't need to update their resumes just yet. But at some point... well, technology marches on, doesn't it?

I predicted as much in an essay I wrote for the Style section in 1995--after a new set of automated voice prompts in Bell Atlantic's directory assistance briefly fooled me into thinking the company had replaced its operators with computers. (Credit where it's due: Some of the piece, including the punch line at the end, came from its editor, an eccentric, shabbily-dressed colleague who has been known to pull stunts like name-dropping Immanuel Kant and flaunting his financial ineptitude in different stories on the same day.)

The text of that piece is after the jump. Meanwhile, if you've found Google's free 411 helpful--or if you've got an alternative suggestion for robo-directory-assistance--let me know in the comments.

Published on: Sunday, 4/23/1995, Style section,
Final edition, zone, F01

By Rob Pegoraro
Special to The Washington Post

For one brief moment, it looked like yet another step toward the ultimate reduction of all existence to a soulless stream of ones and zeros. Another use of computers to do things faster and cheaper, another way to fire a few redundant, less-capable humans. But that wasn't it. It was worse than that.

It started when I rang up directory assistance, looking for a friend's number. And instead of James Earl Jones's reassuringly authoritative "Welcome to Bell Atlantic," I heard the Stepford Microchip.

"This is directory assistance," a mechanical voice chirped.

"For what city, please?" it brightly asked. And then paused, awaiting my input.

Now, I'm used to computers doing all manner of interactive things. There are optical scanners that read type. There are programs that recognize your handwriting. Why not automated directory assistance?

So I drew in my breath, and, enunciating clearly, surrendered the name of the city: "Rockville."

A further Robo-query: "For what listing, please?"

Yessss! It worked!

"Sancho," I said, being careful to avoid any "uhs" or "umms" that might confuse the machine at the other end, with its doubtlessly still-primitive voice-recognition program. I was starting to sound like a computer imitating human speech.

It's amazing how advanced technology compels people to suck up to it. Years of putting up with cranky hardware and voice-mail jail teaches one thing: Computers are fickle things. If you don't do things the right way, you'll only get an obscure error message, like "The application WINBFD.EXE has caused a General Protection Fault." Who needs that? And so, waiting on the phone, I was more polite and considerate of the computer than I would have been to a human.

And then, briefly, the sounds of a human. "Please hold for the listing." Followed by the familiar computer voice, "The number is 3 . . . 0 . . . 1 . . . "I hung up and marveled at this advance. How'd they get a computer system to deal with all the accents around the D.C. area? When could I get something like this in my apartment to screen my calls? What would it cost? Where would it end? And what if things went wrong?

"Open the bathroom door, HAL."

"I'm sorry, Rob, I'm afraid I can't do that."

I also spared a thought for the directory assistance employees, soon to be reengineered. I was sure the new technology was at least giving them more time to update their resumes on the office photocopier.

Soon after, though, I found out the even more sobering truth from a co-worker, one who spends a sickening amount of time calling directory assistance. He had run into RoboOperator as well, and, in the brief interval of human contact during the call, had asked the operator how this worked.

And so, the banal reality:

There is no computer. No voice recognition, no automation. It's just a crummy recording, a machine reciting the city listing catechism, and it doesn't care what you say, or how you say it. All the while an actual person is listening to you, same as always; you might as well go back to talking with your mouth full of Krispy Kreme jelly doughnuts.

In a sense, this is part of the march of progress that began when they took those silly cranks off the sides of telephones because you no longer had to stir the machine to ring a bell to raise an operator named Maud or Francine who would "place" your call. Self-dialing was followed by direct dialing, which was followed by push-button dialing, which is not dialing at all but punching, which was followed by speed dialing, and so forth.

But this cheesy new wrinkle seems more an imposture than an innovation. It's deceptive. It hints at a technology that isn't there. It makes you act goofy in front of a stranger. It's kind of like a one-way mirror in a department store dressing room.

I called the phone company. (Calling the phone company is a somewhat intimidating act, sort of like fixing a meal for Julia Child.) Bell Atlantic spokesman Michel Daley said I had it all wrong.

"Having the call begin with an automated response increases efficiency because it prompts the caller to provide all the information up front. . . . We think the automated response is designed to be customer-friendly. We definitely don't believe we have a rote, stark automated response."

Uh, okay. True. It's not like you ever got to hear Alec Baldwin recite directory listings. But who was taking that much time with directory assistance before, anyway?

"Sometimes you have people that are calling, are lonely and want to talk to the operators," Daley replied.

Modern society can be so heartless sometimes.

And what about the operators? "It frees the operators up from the mechanical task of their jobs," Daley said. "They had a greeting to say, generally, over 100 times an hour. It takes away some of the monotony of the job." Of course, it might also help Bell Atlantic the next time headquarters number-crunches its personnel expenditures. But that's the kind of cynicism that has no place in a newspaper of this quality.

This new system isn't without its benefits. For one thing, I still speak more clearly than usual when I hit that recorded greeting. The operators must appreciate that.

But there is the certainty that one day soon it will be a stack of circuit boards handling directory assistance. When that happens, I'll be ready. When a computer asks what number I seek, I will plug my phone into my CD-ROM drive, which runs any number of programs that can produce similar robotic voices. One of these, for example, is a Home Medical Reference Library that helpfully pronounces the names of body parts, diseases and common surgical procedures.

"This is directory assistance. For what city, please?"

"Myocardial infarction."

"And the listing in Miami, Florida?"

"Hemorrhoidectomy . . . "

No, I'll never get a number I need. But the last laugh will be mine.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  April 11, 2007; 1:20 PM ET
Categories:  Telecom  
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