Agencies test a voice-activated telephone system

Bell Atlantic Federal enlisted federal users to test its voice-based dialing
system that automates internal telephone directories of up to 20,000 listings.

[email protected] can find names, place calls and manage voice mail by spoken commands. It
uses speaker-independent voice recognition and natural language technology from Nuance
Communications Corp. of Menlo Park, Calif.

The voice dialer, announced last month at the FOSE trade show in Washington, underwent
testing at the Veterans Affairs Department, where it reduced the average time to connect a
call by more than 80 percent, according to Bell Atlantic officials. The Agriculture
Department also is considering use of [email protected], they said.

The dialer does not have to be trained to respond to a particular voice, and speakers
need not adhere to speed or phrasing constraints. Bell Atlantic itself uses [email protected]
to handle 500 calls a day and a 19,000-person directory in its Washington, Philadelphia
and Baltimore offices. Officials said the connection rate there is about 90 percent.

The dialer’s phonetic recognition algorithms recognize a limited number of basic
language sounds rather than a large vocabulary of complete words.

“Phonetic recognition was a significant development in the field of voice
recognition,” said Alexander McAllister, manager of technology development at Bell
Atlantic Federal. [email protected] does not translate speech; it simply matches a spoken name
against a directory entry.

Bell Atlantic is targeting the federal market because personnel reductions have forced
agencies to automate simple procedures, he said. Also, the federal work force’s
mobility makes automated directories attractive. Not only do the lists need frequent
updates, but many workers are unfamiliar with local dialing schemes.

In the VA tests, it took an average of 16 seconds to place a call with [email protected],
compared with more than two minutes when a caller had to look up a number in a directory
and dial manually.

Inside an organization, users can dial with a two-digit spoken code. The usual seven-
or 10-digit number is necessary to dial in from outside. A caller hears one of many
messages asking whom to connect. When the caller names a person, office, department or
other identifier, [email protected] looks up the entry.

If the dialer is 75 percent confident it has found the right entry, it repeats the name
then places the call. If it gets the wrong name on the first try, it proceeds to the next
likely entry. If it cannot find an entry, it sends the call to an operator.

Because the automated voice prompts come from a natural-sounding voice speaking whole
sentences, callers tend to behave as if they were interacting with a person. The system
responds to slang such as “yeah” as well as “yes,” and
“nope” as well as “no.”

In tests by Bell Atlantic, [email protected] correctly handed off to the operator requests
such as “Goldie Hawn, please,” or “Let me speak to James Earl Jones.”
When asked for “Miss Hawn,” however, it stumbled and offered the name Michelle
Hall before giving up and defaulting to an operator.

The dialer recognizes common nicknames and variants and connects Robert Jones with
requests for Bob or Bobby Jones. It also understands a request for maintenance whether the
caller asks for “copy repair,” “Xerox repair,” or “repair copy

Because of the high cost of installation and maintenance, the market for [email protected]
is limited to enterprises with several thousand users. The 20,000-user limit per system
likely will increase, McAllister said.

[email protected] costs about $26 per subscriber, $64,891 for up to 2,500 subscribers,
and $106,478 for up to 7,500 subscribers.  

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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