They arrive on the scene and open new vistas for humanity, but inevitably also bring developments that seem to be a malevolent blight. Industrialization gave us urban slums. The car gave us sprawl.
The computer gave us techno music.
No, actually there is something worse - an offspring of computer technology so universally loathed, it makes people angry at its mere mention. In the industry, this creature is known as interactive voice response, or IVR.
In layman's terms, it's called: "That &@%$# computer that answers the phone."
You know, you call a health insurer, an airline, the 800 number on an electric toothbrush, or just about any business, and you never get a person. Sometimes, a recording tells you to press 1 for this and 2 for that. But increasingly, you get an overeager voice inviting you to say what you're calling about.
So you call your health insurance company and awkwardly speak a word or two into the receiver, like "heart attack." And the happy voice on the line says, "I didn't get that. Can you try again?" And you impatiently bark, "Heart attack!" And the voice says, "Did you say you want information about bikini wax?" And then you're dead. That's why people hate these things.
Callers see IVR as a barrier put up to keep them from getting help from a person. The antagonism has gotten so bad that there are Web sites that post cheats for various 800 numbers - words you can say or buttons you can push to get around the system and to a live operator.
Given all that, it's pretty shocking to hear experts in technology predict that 2005 will be a turnaround year for IVR. They say IVR will start to get so good that we will actually like it, and then even prefer it.
"That's our long-term vision - to make it a better experience than a live agent," says Larry Miller, CEO of TuVox, a start-up that makes the IVR systems used by TiVo, MCI and the U.S. Postal Service.
IVR is on the acceptance path previously trod by the ATM, Miller says. When ATMs first appeared in the 1970s, hardly anybody wanted to touch them - or trust they'd get the transaction right. Customers saw ATMs as a way to cut down on tellers. Banks had to offer incentives to use the machines.
Now we're so hooked on ATMs, we're willing to pay a fee to use them. When all you want is a quick $60, the last thing you want is to wind up in front of a teller with cotton candy hair who counts out the bills with all the alacrity of a tai chi master. Attitudes have completely reversed.
A ton of effort is going into making IVR more beloved. Microsoft this year introduced its Speech Server 2004 software for handling speech-based applications. IBM recently made its speech software open source - like the Linux operating system - so thousands of developers worldwide can improve on it. In addition to TuVox, companies such as ScanSoft, Voxeo and LivePerson are going after a share of the market.
University labs are working on speech applications. At the University of Southern California, researchers have developed software that can detect the level of frustration in a caller's voice. This way a system could know if you're not getting the right answers and switch you to a live operator before you crush the phone with your bare hands.
TuVox, started by former Apple Computer executives, takes IVR out of the hierarchical, menu-driven method that makes us crazy. Instead, it pitches technology that can pick up on words spoken conversationally and make assumptions about what you need so it can skip steps and get to an answer. "We try to understand why the caller is calling," CEO Miller says.
It's a long way from perfect, and you can still get trapped in a loop. But TiVo, for one, believes customers like it - or at least don't get mad at it.
Other factors are helping IVR get near a turnaround point. Speech recognition can be done well only by lightning-fast, high-powered computers, and those are becoming cheaper than a good pair of skis. Meanwhile, speech-recognition software has made great leaps.
"We are riding the curve of speech-recognition capability," Miller says.
One lagging piece is speech-generation - a computer that can produce natural-sounding speech on the fly. Current systems use pre-recorded phrases to sound conversational, but if the system has to respond in a unique way to your specific question, the voice gets stilted and flat. In one TuVox demo, the voice sometimes sounds like a drunk person trying to do a Swedish accent.
Attitudes about IVR won't change easily - even in businesses. Despite the cost savings, "Some companies resist deploying speech applications and fear that customers will not be comfortable with automated support," says a report by Forrester Research. In other words, they don't want to tick people off.
Nonetheless, the Forrester report goes on to say that speech applications will "grow from its relatively stagnant position today of less than $700 million to a multibillion-dollar business by 2008."
By then, callers to an 800 number might not even be able to tell whether they're talking to a computer or a real person. Go beyond 2008, and IVR-type technology might get so cheap, companies might build a cell phone that contains software that could carry on a conversation sounding exactly like a real person.
Program it to sound like your teenage daughter, and you could have some serious fun with her boyfriends.
Kevin Maney has covered technology for USA TODAY since 1985. His column appears Wednesdays. Click here for an index of Technology columns. E-mail him at: email@example.com.