AT&T Operators Try to Pull Plug On Technology

Speech-activated computers to replace people

AT&T operator Lois Grimes made her plea on Mother's Day.

"Thank you for using AT&T and a live operator," she told callers during her shift. The tag-line was part of a union-inspired campaign to ward off a new technology. This technology allows computers to understand the human voice. It may one day make human telephone workers obsolete.

It's called speech recognition. Long a gleam in the eye of scientists, speech recognition is finally breaking into the business world. Next month, AT&T will begin using it to handle collect calls. The plan is the biggest and most visible use of the technology so far. "This goes a long way toward making a workable system" of speech recognition, says Dick Rabin, senior vice president of Vanguard Communications Corporation, a Morris Plains, N.J., consulting firm.

The technology will work this way: A caller dials "0" and a long-distance number. A speech-recognition computer asks whether the call is calling card, third-party, person-to-person, or collect. When the caller responds, the computer acts.

For example, if the caller says "collect," the computer asks the caller's name. Then it dials the number, says "You have a collect call from," and replays the person's name. The machine asks the recipient if he or she will accept the call. If "yes," the computer connects the two parties. If "no," it hangs up and tells the caller the call was not accepted.

Speech recognition faces resistance, especially from those it would replace. AT&T says the technology will eliminate the need for 3,000 to 6,000 of its 18,000 operators by 1994. The company's largest union, the Communications Workers of America (CWA), is fighting to preserve those jobs. It says the technology is one of its top priorities in the current round of negotiations with AT&T. The union is also taking its case to the public. It points to instances where operators have saved lives. In recent month s, an Indiana and a California operator gave first-aid instructions to parents with choking babies while they contacted emergency professionals.

"If I have an emergency and I call and I just need that calm voice to be the voice of reason, that's not going to be there if we have robots on the line," says Ms. Grimes, who is also president of C.W.A. Local 13550 here in Pittsburgh.

But the company is holding firm. "We have made our decision," says Gerald Hines, general manager of AT&T operator services. The system will be installed starting next month in Jacksonville, Fla., and Seattle. It should be completed nationwide by early 1994.

Mr. Hines adds: People in crisis are far more likely to dial 911 or the local operator than they are to reach AT&T long-distance services. A live operator comes on as well if they dial the required "00." It's only when they dial a long-distance number that the computer comes on. Even then, saying "operator" will bring a live person on the line; so will a noise or phrase that the computer doesn't understand.

WILL people want to talk to computers?

The union says no. The company says yes. It cites two recent field tests, where 80 percent or more of the customers rated the system good or excellent.

"This technology is definitely moving into the mainstream," says Chris Seelbach, president of Seelbach Associates, a Short Hills, N.J., consulting firm. New businesses are using speech recognition to offer current services to people who don't have touch-tone and other services.

"It will make services available that aren't available today," adds John Oberteuffer, president of Voice Information Associates in Lexington, Mass.

One such service comes from Advanced Telecom Services in Wayne, Pa. Its speech-recognition computers offers answers to more than 600 newspaper crossword puzzles nationwide.

"We've had a lot of real positive responses" about the speech-recognition service, says Bob Bentz, the company's marketing director. But to handle calls to its own headquarters, the company recently added live operators to its automated voice-mail system. "We found that people enjoyed a real personal approach," he says.

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