A speech recognition app goes into a bar. Speak up if you’ve heard it already

Listen to me, Palmer, now listen to me

Something for the Weekend, Sir? It has been a quiet week. Apart from the nuclear warning siren, of course.

The distinctive and impressively noisy wail advising me of my imminent vaporisation sounded at 12:15pm on Wednesday. It may have sent those of a nervous disposition into a fluster but not me. I am made of sterner stuff. I knew exactly what to do.

I closed the window.

That a WWII-style air raid siren should blast its way through the suburban calm of lunchtime on the first Wednesday of the month comes as no surprise. It does this at lunchtime every first Wednesday of the month.

It's a French thing. They've been doing it every first Wednesday for the last 75 years or so, across cities and towns alike, nationwide. It's supposed to be a disaster signal, letting citizens know when they are drowning in a flood or being swept away by fire, in case they were unaware of it.

The authorities test the siren on first-Wednesdays nominally to make sure the system still works but also to keep us on our civic toes. Occasionally they "accidentally" allow the siren to sound on the wrong day and at the wrong time, rather like the definitely-not-a-drill-yes-OK-it's-a-drill fire alarm tricks that your office manager used to play on you.

Whenever this happens, I like to imagine that a certain class of citizen is sprinting to their personal underground bunker for safety. And since nobody bothers to call or knock on your door to tell you it's OK to stop whitewashing the inside of your windows, I wonder how long some of these bunkerbums remain curled up below the surface turf with not even a 4G signal to comfort them.

The last time this happened, the only mention about the incident was a small news-in-brief piece in the next day's local paper quoting the bemused mayor saying the unplanned siren call was a "technical error" – the usual euphemism meaning a cock-up in the Siren Button Room that nobody will ever own up to.

How many copies of the local newspaper do you think get delivered to nuclear fallout bunkers?

If you think nuclear bunkers are a thing of the past, I draw your attention to this current Zoopla property ad. It's a lot of money for a 50 sq m two-bed flat, even in London EC1. But the 150 sq m underground double bunker that comes with it, complete with radiators, air conditioning and six-handle submarine-style metal doors, is deliciously tempting. Come on, don't deny it.

Luckily for me this week, I was not working. When I am at work on the first Wednesday of any month, I book out 12 noon to 12:30 pm on my agenda as "unavailable." Besides, it's bloody lunchtime, n’est-ce pas?

I learnt my lesson last year during first lockdown. It's one thing to have the siren going off in the middle of a phone call: at least you can yell into the mouthpiece that you'll call them later, hang up and send a text to confirm. It's quite another thing when you are speaking live to camera during a webinar.

Attendees think it's cute when kids wander into your office to ask where mummy is and who that other lady is snoring in your bed. They go ahhhhhh when your cat jumps onto the desk and bites through your audio cable. But when you're about to speak and the siren goes off…

A bit like this.

Youtube Video

No actors were harmed in the making of this reconstruction. The audio is genuine, by the way: it's my own recording of the local siren, captured from inside my office with the windows shut.

Such an experience is also a reminder, as if we needed one, why voice recognition still hasn't overtaken keyboard input.

Don't get me wrong, automated voice transcription is almost impossibly good these days, and at the risk of goading animal protectionists, I am an Otter-lover. But voice recognition as a means of entering essential data and operating your computer? Keep your Echoes and Assistants. They are not for me.

I had enough of this during my last city office contract, when wags on the helpdesk would creep up from behind and murmur over my shoulder "Edit Select-All Delete Yes" into my headset mic. Then they'd saunter over to the open plan kitchen, the noise of the boiling kettle barely masking the strains of me screaming "Undo! Undo!"

The answer ought to be mind-control. If I can't rely on audio – whether due to bored colleagues or French sirens – perhaps some boffins have come up with a brainwave on the old, er, brainwave front, no?

Well, no. Articles earlier this year in Nature and IEEE Spectrum tend to put the kibosh on such speculation. While it has been demonstrated that it is possible to use brain-power to move a cursor around a virtual keyboard and type messages, it is painfully slow, achieving about eight words a minute maximum. This compares to the 23 words per minute achieved by able-bodied people texting on their smartphones, or the 40 words per minute of a two-finger keyboard typist.

Researchers at Stanford University then found that a paralysed man willing to have an electrode array implanted into his brain was able to achieve about 18 words per minute not by thinking about typing onto a keyboard but about imagining writing the words.

I miss writing recognition. I know it’s really very accurate now on tablets and big smartphones but the modern form factor defeats me. I can do it but the hardware is too big and clumsy, my handwriting occasionally foxes the system and my progress is slow.

This is in sharp contrast to 20 years ago. Back when handwriting recognition was still pants, I used to tear through work on-the-go (while travelling, that is, not in the bathroom) using what we used to call palmtops. I owned several Palm Pilots and their successors, and although you had to learn its simplified, proprietary glyph alphabet, for me they have never been bettered as a handwriting input device.

Maybe I just have an overly rosy recollection of those days but the form factor must have been significant. I tried Apple’s abortive Newton and didn’t like it at all. I’m scared of trying a Samsung Note because, well, their last pre-smartphone handset was possibly the worst electronic device ever conceived – yes, even worse than the Gateway 2000 10th Anniversary PC – and it put me off for life.

Until someone makes a desktop trackpad I can properly scribble on, I’ll hang on my keyboards for a while yet. Voice? Not a chance, pal.

If you see me buying even a voice operated smart speaker, sound the sirens.

Youtube Video

Alistair Dabbs
Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling tech journalism, training and digital publishing. He feels what the world needs now is less talking and more doing. Oh, and love, sweet love, right Dionne? More at Autosave is for Wimps and @alidabbs this week if he can unswamp himself.

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