The electrosecretary

| Comments (4) | Misc
From Arthur C. Clarke's A Fall of Moondust (1961):
When he had finished dictating, he paused ot marshal his ideas, could think of nothing further, and added: "Copy to Chief Administrator, Moon: Chief Engineer, Farside; Supervisor, Traffic Control; Tourist Commissioner; Central Filing, Classify as Confidential."

He pressed the transcription key. Within twenty seconds, all twelve pages of his report, impeccably typed and punctuated, with several grammatical slips corrected, had emerged from the office telefax. He scanned it rapidly, in case the electrosecretary had made mistakes. She did this occasionally (all electrosecs were "she"), especially during rush periods when she might be taking dication from a dozen sources at once. In any event, no wholly sane machine could cope with all the eccentricities of a language like English, and every wise executive checked his final draft before he sent it out. Many were the hilarious disasters that had overtaken those who had left it all to electronics.

This is one of those predictions that's sort of right and sort of wrong. While practically nobody dictates letters any more, it's certainly true that you can't trust computer's attempts to interpret ambiguous human input, as anyone who has tried to use a voice recognition system, typed on an iPhone can attest, or carelessly accepted the suggestions of their spell checker can attest. It's not usually an artifact of excess load, though: computer performance doesn't usually degrade that way. Of course, a modern system of this type would most likely run on a local computer, rather than some remote centralized timesharing system that faxes you your output, but this was a common blind spot of science fiction writers prior to the personal computer era.

More off-base is the assumption that dictation plus transcription (whether manual or automatic) is a good way to write. It's true that people wrote letters that way back in 1961, but practically nobody does that now. This isn't because computer voice recognition systems suck (though they do)—plenty of people could afford to have a full time secretary type their messages—it's just vastly more convenient to use a modern word processing system than it is to dictate, even to a secretary. Pretty much only older people who never learned to type or use a computer need to dictate any more. I'm skeptical even a much better voice recognition system would be good enough to displace typed interfaces to word processing systems. Now maybe if you could use a Cerebrum Communicator... That said, the IBM Selectric was introduced in 1961, so I think Clark can be forgiven for failing to predict how convenient typewriter-style interfaces would eventually be.

4 Comments

Pretty much only older people who never learned to type or use a computer need to dictate any more.
And doctors.

Doctors still dictate their reports, and medical transcriptionists still transcribe (or correct the results of speech-reco systems).

people who really type a lot, like court transcribers and audio transcribers, live by their voice recognition software (in addition to the disabled).

Oh boy "And Doctors." A Forensic Pathologist I know spends at least 15 hours a week outside of the office dictating cases. Especially important ones she types herself, but it takes much, much more of her time than recording a dictation, emailing the .mp3 to the transcriptionist, and then reading and correcting the report for errors before sending it out. Typing speed isn't really a limiting factor either, as she does about 80wpm.

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