"Operator, are you there?" AT&T's announcement that it plans to replace much of its famed telephone operator services with automated voice-recognition technology is likely to leave many people wondering, but automation is a fact of life. It started in 1927, with customer-dialed calls. In 1951, the company introduced direct dialing of long-distance calls. World War II and the post-war economic surge had driven telephone usage dramatically upward, mandating changes to allow more calls to go through more quickly.
Today, with multiple long-distance carriers, automated voice-mail systems and even computerized bank reporting systems on the line, telephone users often find themselves interacting with machines rather than human operators.
What's different here is that AT&T, reading phone traffic reports that show 95 percent of all calls getting through without operator assistance, has tied voice-recognition to the switching controls. Instead of prompts to push buttons on the touch-tone keypad, the caller will be asked to say "collect," "third number," "person-to-person" or similar words. Trials in Texas showed customers found this new approach easy to use and more flexible, AT&T says, and there is no reason to doubt that. Many a voice-mail user has been frustrated by multiple push-button prompts.