Pardon me? When machines deliver the wrong massage

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Last year, lying in hospital, afloat on painkillers, I lost my day-to-day bearings. Machines beeped. Drips dripped. Kabuki shadows slid across the curtain. Next, a nurse appeared in the dark, a voice promising an orchestra in the morning.

This made no sense, but things rarely do in hospital. Capsules and tubes preserve their own mystery, along with language, the acronyms and pulse rates. Hence an orchestra felt as logical as anything else. Besides, a bit of Mozart might brighten the stay.

Turns out the “VSO”, as I’d heard my nurse, wasn’t the Victorian Symphony Orchestra but “physio”, a bloke to poke my limbs, rather than a bedside Puccini. I blamed the drugs, though humans mishear words daily, even clear-headed humans. Messages engulf us, shredding our attention. What we think we hear is what we deem to understand, an accidental brand of fake news.

“I have a case of wind … I mean wine.”Credit: Jo Gay

Ivan Aristeguieta knows this delusion first-hand. The Venezuelan comic recently became an Australian citizen, despite believing he lived among savages. The culprit was a phrase he’d misheard on arrival. In Ivan’s words, “Imagine how shocked I was when this guy explained tall puppy syndrome. He told me that if a puppy grows taller than the rest, it gets cut off. Decapitated! It’s barbaric!”

Four years later, visiting Canberra’s Floriade festival – “just like Amsterdam, but without the fun stuff” – Ivan encountered a new word, a new flower, in fact. The puppies of his nightmares morphed into the poppies of idiom, his new home seeming a kinder, more dog-loving place.

Flawed messages can be dangerous things. Not always, of course. Sometimes they’re cute, ludicrous, the stuff of Buzzfeed listicles. For Buzz Aldrin to owe his nickname to his kid sister, a girl who’d pronounced “brother” as “buzzer”, is endearing. Just as Ken Behrens, the caricature born of a misheard “Canberrans” in a 2021 press conference, was a welcome relief from the lockdown blues.

Fat-finger blunders have long plagued our keyed messages, or the tampering of autocorrect, turning “crowd” into “crows”. I remember texting home, on the eve of a family dinner, that “I have a case of wind”, when I’d really meant “wine”. Funny in hindsight. No lives lost. Yet the more we rely on speech-to-text software, the greater the mishap ratio. One person’s innocuous orchestra could be another patient’s anxiety.

Take Sara Machnik, a young Canadian awaiting her X-ray results last year. Already a cancer survivor, Sara was shocked to learn of “bony metastatic disease”, fearing a relapse, a finite sentence. Only for a doctor to make a follow-up call, explaining how the diagnosis was a typo, a conditional phrase devoid of its all-important “if”, somehow missed by the voice command. Indeed, Sara’s prognosis was clear, unlike the future of software reliance.

A website for the Association for Healthcare Documentation Integrity – a US watchdog – has built a bank of wonky messages committed by doctors, or more their Alexa-like gadgets. Many inspire a chuckle, such as “single lung transplant” mutating into “sing-a-long transplant”. Others, though, are the stuff of stomach pumps, including “Lipitor 20, two pills a day” becoming “Lipitor 22 pills a day”. Or Nystatin – an anti-thrush medicine – distorting into Niaspan, a cholesterol modifier.

Naveen the physio knew his stuff. He prodded my torso, tested my limbs and said I was on the mend. Maybe an orchestra would have been just as soothing, unlike Ivan’s headless labradors, but soon enough all of us will need to face the music about the impact of machine-made words, demanding how well we can trust air-knee massage. Sorry, any message.

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