New phone system hears you


New and exciting technology was introduced to the everyday routine of most members of the McMaster community in late October, but Terry Cleland, director of telecommunications, wants to encourage the community to continue with tradition.

That is: using the automated attendant feature on your telephone by simply entering the five-digit extension of the party you wish to reach.

McMaster is one of the first large Hamilton-area organizations and one of the first Canadian post-secondary institutions to install a state-of-the-art, speech-activated voice recognition system. The system allows telephone callers to speak the name of the person they wish to reach and be automatically directed to the proper extension.

Adopting the technology was spurred by the move in the fall to give all students living in residence their own extension, thus placing added strain on the system. The main objective of the new device is to divert calls that would normally be handled by the operator.

“This new innovation was brought in to augment what we already have,” says Cleland. “But I also think it's the way of the future.”

An automated telephone system was first introduced 15 years ago to the campus. Prior to that time, close to 10,000 calls received each day and all were circuited through human operators. Since then, almost 90 per cent of calls are processed by automation – callers simply pressing the extension by themselves.

Today, the system receives close to 16,000 calls each day with close to 80 per cent still handled by the automated system. The speech-activated system now handles about 1,000 calls (six per cent) daily.

Problems have occurred when the new system routes calls to the wrong extension. That is an understandable problem in a brand-new system expected to handle close to 7,000 names and numbers, says Cleland.

Tammy Kenyon, systems analyst and project co-ordinator of telecommunications, has been undertaking an ongoing optimization of the system. That process includes imputing a variety of aliases for each name.

For example, the system will be able to recognize not only Professor Russo, but also David Russo, Dr. Russo and so on. As well, Kenyon is working to ensure various phonetics, speech accents, and pronunciations don't adversely impact the system.

Currently, the system is available only to incoming callers. Cleland thinks the big test will come during the 2000-2001 academic year when residence students are informed of the system prior to moving in.