American Telephone & Telegraph Co. said yesterday it plans to begin using a new voice-recognition technology to handle long-distance calls, a move that could result in the elimination of one-third of its 18,000 telephone operators' positions by 1994.
AT&T said it decided to begin using the new technology, which responds to commands from a human voice, and slash its operator work force after reviewing the results of two market tests held in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Those yearlong trials showed that customers responded favorably to the technology, AT&T said.
The company said it decided to eliminate up to 400 management and 3,000 to 6,000 non-management positions from its operator services organization by the end of 1994. That move will necessitate the closing of 31 offices in 21 states, AT&T said.
AT&T closed operator offices in Glen Burnie in December as part of a regular streamlining measure. There were about 100 workers in that office, most of whom have found jobs elsewhere with AT&T, said Jim McGann, an AT&T spokesman in Washington.
The use of voice-recognition technology is the latest in a series of steps initiated by the industry to speed calling and curtail costs.
Before 1951, all long-distance calls had to be handled by operators. Direct dialing, which was considered a revolutionary concept when it was introduced by AT&T, made its debut that year. About 95 percent of all calls are handled without operator assistance today, according to AT&T.
Voice recognition is the next step in an increasingly automated world where the line between humans and machines is blurring at an accelerating pace.
But that is not to say that technology will ever fully replace the human operator. If the caller experiences trouble with a call, an operator automatically comes on the line. The AT&T devices prompt users through a recorded voice. The voice instructs the caller to say the word "collect," for example, to place a collect call. The device, using sophisticated computer software, recognizes the command.
At any time the caller can say the word "operator" and a human operator will come on the line, AT&T said. An operator also will come on if a caller appears to be having trouble.
Mr. McGann said it is unlikely that human operators will ever be completely removed.
"I can't ever see that happening. For anybody who doesn't want to use the technology, operators will still be there," he said.
AT&T said it plans to use the new technology in Jacksonville, Fla., and Seattle in June. Nationwide implementation will be completed in early 1994, AT&T said.
AT&T said workers displaced by the new voice-recognition technology will be offered other jobs within the company. Affected employees might be asked to relocate. Those who do not find jobs will be offered, depending on seniority, company-paid retraining, job counseling, outplacement services and severance pay of up to two years.
The Communications Workers of America, the union that represents telephone operators, expressed outrage yesterday at the company's decision.
"There is no reason to announce this technology except to strike fear in the heart of AT&T workers and intimidate them in direct bargaining," said Jim Irvine, a CWA vice president in Washington.
AT&T's contract with the CWA expires May 30. Bargaining with the union is scheduled to begin March 30.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.