OK computer

Residents of Barcelona, Turin and Camden in London who feel like they are talking to a computer when they phone for council information or to carry out a transaction will soon be proven right. But instead of receiving scripted responses they will be conversing with a platform that enables natural dialogue.



Developed by the IST-funded HOPS project, the platform uses a variety of technologies to enable people to talk to a computer over the phone as if they are talking with a human call centre worker.



While saving the councils time and money, callers will find they have access to interactive information and services around the clock, said Joan Batlle, the project coordinator at Barcelona city hall. Importantly, the natural language dialogue made possible by the platform should overcome people’s general dislike of talking to automated call centre systems.



‘The problem has been that most of the systems used to automate call centres rely on asking the caller to pick from a list of options and then offering a response from a pre-programmed list that may or may not give the user the information they require,’ said Batlle.



The HOPS project has managed to make human-machine dialogue more natural and fluid by merging voice technologies such as Automatic Speech Recognition (ASR) and Text to Speech (TTS) with natural language processing technologies to understand, interpret and respond to callers. These components are then tied into a data management system incorporating Semantic Web technology for finding and extracting the information sought by users.



‘The platform itself is designed to be highly flexible so it can be used in any public administration call centre to provide any service or information. The only thing that really has to be changed depending on where it is deployed is the vocabulary. That could mean different languages or a different lexicon depending on whether it is used to deal with car registrations or cultural events,’ Batlle said.



Preliminary trials carried out in Barcelona, Camden and Turin proved the flexibility and functionality of the system which was able to provide responses in a range of languages to callers asking about two different types of services.



The project is due to begin testing a second prototype in the autumn ahead of tests with a third and final version of the platform that will also serve to gauge callers’ reactions.



Batlle said that all three town halls involved in the project are planning to employ the finished version of the platform. In Turin, the city hall is planning to use it to handle calls while retaining human operators as a backup, while in Camden the system will be employed initially to carry out quality of service surveys. In Barcelona it will be used to replace the recorded messages used overnight and at weekends, with an eventual goal of using it more extensively.