Broken, battered and bruised

Automobile crossing rope bridge

Automobile crossing rope bridge (Photo credit: The Field Museum Library)

Buying your first car is a rite of passage so it seemed fitting that Dad came with me to help me make a sensible choice. I don’t know why this made so much sense at the time because all of Dad’s cars came from that twilight zone between bangerdom and the crusher. Every crap car from British Leyland and Ford had broken down with us in it, usually during the journey to or from our holiday destination. Nevertheless, armed with a thousand of my own hard borrowed pounds, we made the pilgrimage round the classifieds in search of the perfect vehicle.

Car after car didn’t make the grade as Dad carefully looked over them. A superb looking Mini Clubman with sporty spotlights was dismissed as too sporty. Another car went because there was more rust than car. Some cars were too big. None were too small. At the end of our trail, we found the Goldilocks car, a white Renault 5. It was the rock bottom, bargain basement, base model. It didn’t even have the most essential item of equipment in it, a stereo. It had an 850cc engine which had just about enough power to make the thing move and it cornered on its wing mirrors (or it would if it had any wing mirrors).

An awful lot happened in that car. A few weeks after I bought it, I drove along a residential street. I wasn’t going very fast because the Renault didn’t do fast. From in between two parked cars out came a football bouncing into the road. In the time it took my brain to make the connection that it might be followed by a child, a terrified boy appeared spread-eagled on my bonnet before he bounced off. I think it’s the only time I’ve ever hurt anyone. After the police disappeared and the boy went off in an ambulance, I got back in my car, shaking like a leaf. Before I drove off, I noted with sadness that the child’s mates were still playing football in the road despite the earlier accident and the fact that a football field lay on the other side of the road.

Various bits fell off the car and just about everything failed. The brakes failed when I came down Midland Hill once. The car in front of me braked and came to a stop, indicating to turn off. I braked and my car didn’t stop at all. In the end, I had to drive up the bank at the side of the road. The clutch failed when I went to college. I dropped it over at the clutch garage one September morning and made my way to college. That was the day that the hurricane hit the UK. Late afternoon, I gave them a call to see if it would be ready to take me home.

“Errr… we’ve been having a few problems today mate. Was it the Renault?”

His use of the past tense alarmed me.

“You see, the roof’s fallen on it and we’re still digging it out.”

I really appreciated all the time my Dad took to help me choose the right car, but when I bought my second car, I went alone.

I can’t understand a word you’re saying…

Land Rover 109 lwb 1980

Land Rover 109 lwb 1980 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Whenever I see those adverts for the iPhone where they show off the speech recognition software (called Siri), I can’t help a wry smile forming on my face. I was asked to undertake a feasibility study of speech recognition software once. It was roughly 15 years ago in the Pentium era.

My boss thought that the technology would prove useful in our care control system. The elderly and the infirm wear electronic pendants and when they get into trouble, they simply press the button on the pendant. The base station under the phone wakes up and dials the control centre so that the person in trouble can be connected an operator.

Local authorities across the land had signed up for the software and it was a big success. In metropolitan areas such as Birmingham, they had pendant wearers from all kinds of ethnicities and many of them could not speak English. It was impractical to teach all the control centre operators all the different languages so they relied on interpreters which had to be called in on demand. This system was very expensive and there was an inevitable delay in getting relief to where it was needed.

If we had speech recognition built into the software, we could connect the pendant wearer directly to the right interpreter. We could also weed out all the false positives like people who pressed the button by accident. Sounds perfect – all we need is speech recognition.

I installed the Lernout & Huaspe speech recognition engine, wrote a simple little program to test out the software and plugged in my microphone. On the screen was a list of three cars. When I spoke into the Microphone, all the software had to do was work out which of the three cars I called out (what can I say – I like cars).

The first attempt went well; “Land Rover” I said carefully into the Microphone. A message popped up saying “You said Land Rover”. So far so good.

Second attempt; “Mini”. Again, a message popped up saying “You said Land Rover”. Not so good.

I tried saying “Mini” again, speaking more slowly and clearly this time, it still thought I was saying Land Rover.

I tried saying it quickly,

I varied the tone of my voice.

I tried different volume levels.

I even tried a different Microphone; “You said Land Rover”.

I thought it might just be the word “Mini”, so I tried “Jaguar”; “You said Land Rover”.

I swore at it. “You said Land Rover”.

The idea was doomed. If it couldn’t recognise me speaking clearly into a Microphone an inch away from my mouth with no background noise – it was never, ever going to work in our target environment. Most of the pendant wearers were totally deaf, so the TV would be on at maximum volume and they would never have the good grace to fall over right next door to the base station so their voice would be distorted by distance.

I went back to my boss and told him that it would never catch on.