JetBlue's Voice Recognition Software Hears What You’re Sayin’

Posted August 28, 2008 by Nicki Krawczyk

Yellingintophone2 I was actually tempted to title this post “JetBlue Doesn’t Want to Hear It,” but that would have been unfair; they just want their actual human customer service reps to have to hear it as rarely as possible. They, as in the Greater They of JetBlue-dom are still listening, they’ll just be routing your calls to brand-new voice recognition software.

I heard that groan. And I know: Your average voice recognition seems to be about as reliable as … well, as your average flight departure time, come to think of it. The recorded voice comes on all nice and pleasant and asks you to speak your information to her (It's almost always a her). You do. She says, “I’m sorry. I didn’t get that. Please repeat your departure city.” “Akron,” you say. She says, “Do you mean Jakarta?” And it goes on like that until you finally wonder what made you think that picking up the phone would be easier than looking it up online in the first place.

JetBlue seems to think that this system will have 90 percent accuracy. Hey, super! But one of the biggest challenges with voice recognition software is both the variety across callers’ lexicons (e.g. yes, yep, yeah, uh-huh, you bet, sure thing, abso-freaking-lutely) and callers’ accents. One man’s “yes” is another man’s “yay-us” and yet another’s “yuss”. And that’s just within the native-born American accent spread. I’m reminded of a British former boss of mine who was trying to use the company’s dial-by-name system to call “Robert Whirrell” and ended up repeatedly screaming into the phone: “Ro-beh Wee-OOOO! RO-BEH WEE-OOO!”

If JetBlue’s new system really is as good as they say it is, though, this could be a big boon for the company and for callers. JetBlue gets to save money by keeping human-operated call centers small and routing most calls through the electronic system. And customers, on the other hand, get to voice and even yell frustrations about flights, fees, and general life ailments at a computer that sounds just like a person but won’t have to go home crying about how mean people can be. In some situations, including the emotionally charged travel realm, the most humane interactions might just be those that don’t involve humans at all.

(Photo: blog.wired.com)

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