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Does ‘Live’ Still Matter? Press 1 For Yes!

I love being able to swipe my card at the gas pump without having to go inside. Does that make me anti-social? Probably. The convenience factor alone is enough, but I’ve always viewed not having to interact with another human as an added bonus. Does that make me anti-social? Definitely.

Is this who you trust to find your directory assistance listings?

Is this who you trust to find your directory assistance listings?

When I’m on the phone, though, I might as well be Tom Hanks talking to a volleyball. I’m desperate for human contact. As soon as I hear that recorded voice tell me their menu options have recently changed, I start pounding the “0″ like a sixth-grader trying to score free Jonas Brothers tickets from the local radio station.

The rush to move to a totally-automated directory assistance model by all the major telecom providers continues, despite the pleas and objections from an often-ignored little group known as their customers. Automation is the future, say the big telecoms. True…but the future is further away than you think.

In terms of engineering and workflow, the human element is usually the bottleneck. Eliminate it, and I can efficiently use the ATM or cruise through the self-check at the grocery store without ever having to leave the bubble of my own little world (and I like it there, too). In directory assistance, it’s the automation that grinds productivity to a halt faster than a guy daring to whip out cash in a Visa commercial. Why is DA automation not ready for prime time? Two words: known values.

The self-check at the grocery store works because the scanner has a limited, definable list of all the items I could possibly buy (except cherry tomatoes, for some reason). Plus, the bar-code system insures uniformity going in. The gas pump only has to deal with specific credit card types and dispense three products at most. Even an automated voicemail system has a relatively small pool of names from which to choose when routing a call.

When a person dials “411,” the variables on both sides of the equation are simply too great. Accents, speech patterns, line conditions; the list of pitfalls on the font-end are impossible to anticipate. Once those hurdles are overcome, the shear volume of the database (almost 200 million listings) dooms the computer to a best-guess scenario, with odds of success normally reserved for playing the lottery.

That’s precisely why directory assistance automation stinks and will continue to stink for the foreseeable future. There are just too many variations on the input and way too many choices of output. Try feeding a few pesos, pounds and drachmas into your ATM and watch the system break down immediately.

Only the human ear can untangle the mish-mash of variables contained within the human voice. Only the human brain can reason its way through a maze of millions of choices without getting bogged down in endless loops and if-then statements.

It’s 2008 and I still don’t have the flying car Popular Mechanics promised me in the ’70s. Will I ever? Probably…eventually. Will fully-automated ever become a viable directory assistance alternative? Probably…eventually. But for now — and for years to come — there’s simply no substitute for live.

Your co-workers will definitely thank you for it. Just don’t expect a hand-written note.