Alex, the African Grey Parrot who was said to be able to use language, died last week of unknown causes. The announcement of his passing was delayed in order to give researchers time to "get over the shock and talk about it."
I became aware of Alex in the mid 1990's when I was doing research on spoken word perception. A visitor to the lab where I worked described meeting Alex, who was already famous among language researchers. She was required to wear sterile surgical scrubs before entering the room where Alex was kept. We lab workers were very impressed with our visitor and her story of having met near royalty in the language world.
One of the issues regarding Alex's use of vocalizations was whether the bird was using language in a human sense. That is, did Alex use words and word order (syntax) in order to express ideas? Selective portions of written transcripts of conversations between scientists and Alex appear to show language use at about a three-year-old level. A portion of a conversation is found in this article in Scientific American.
The really compelling examples of Alex's language skill are the recorded conversations. It's hard for people to see and hear these snippets of interactions and not think that the bird is using language in a human way. Maybe we're wired this way, to accept human vocalizations as expressing human-level emotion and thought.
In a way, our speech IVRs are a little like Alex. They're programmed to produce human vocalizations and recognize and act on snippets of input ("utterances" is the preferred term, instead of words, phrases, or sentences). From this very meager verbal repertoire the humans who call and talk to the systems tend to ascribe capabilities to the system that don't exist. This shows up in callers' generating long, verbose utterances, and courtesy language, and descriptions of such systems as "smart" or "stupid," depending on the systems' performance. Unlike Alex, however, most speech IVRs are neither cute nor engaging, and people who talk to them are usually just trying to get a request fulfilled and get on with their day. Designers who "personify" their VUIs-that is, name them and embue them with personality-are usually making a mistake.
To designers of VUIs I submit the Alex Rule: Don't personify your VUI unless you can make it as charming as Alex. You can't create a VUI as charming as Alex, so don't try.