Image: NASA Image: NASA

John Culshaw may be able to persuade some of us that he is someone else, but do you think he could fool a dog?

Voice recognition software is not really about what we sound like, at least not in the ears of humans. And that, in a nutshell, is why Barclays has joined a growing list of companies, including HSBC and Talk Talk, to offer customers a way to log into their account, or get the information they need from the telephone, without the need to recall one of those pesky passwords.

“We can all relate to the frustration of forgetting a password at the crucial moment,” said Steven Cooper, CEO of personal banking at Barclays.

“Voice security can cut out that part of the call completely and, unlike a password, each person’s voice is as unique as a fingerprint."

Earlier this year, when HSBC announced something similar. Radio Two listeners were dumbstruck by the stupidity of such an idea. “Duh, you can copy someone’s else’s voice,” when the gist of their incredulity. “Besides,” went the voice of the cynics, “your voice can change.” Radio Two’s Jeremy Vine show even had Jon Culshaw on doing his caricatures of other people’s voices, and in the process proved absolutely nothing.

There is a subtlety to the human voice that the human ear may not be so good at picking up on. And even if ones’ voice goes all croaky, the unique, subtle characteristics of our voice can stay in place. A dog is better at picking up on such nuances than us, maybe a computer armed with the latest in software wizardry can do even better.

It is easy to scoff at such an idea, but there is more to voice recognition than common sense appreciates.

“Barclays is constantly looking at ways to improve services for customers and make it easier for them to get things done quickly, this is the perfect example of technology that does exactly that," said Mr. Cooper.

It turns out that according to the trials ran by Barclays, voice recognition may even be better at spotting fraudsters. In the past, staff at some call centres may have been fooled by clever conmen, who, armed with a tiny amount of information, have been able to tease out the information they need to access someone’s account.

Earlier this year, First Direct, another player in this field, said it was creating a database of fraudsters. Presumably, then, it will be able to identify the voice of such a person. An interesting experiment: Would the technology be able to identify Jon Culshaw’s voice when he is impersonating someone else?

Of course, there will be reluctance among some customers to trust the technology, just as others may distrust autonomous cars. But the march of technology is relentless and, just like autonomous cars, voice recognition security is unstoppable – except by technology itself, creating something even better.

But this all begs the question what about websites that try to get you to register when you visit, which, let’s face it, feels like most of them these days.

Will these webs sites also offer voice recognition? Maybe smartphones can eventually have features built into them, such that they can provide proof of your identity via fingerprint recognition, so that they can talk to these websites, saving you all that password recall hassle. But will these technological changes lead to more or less reluctance from the public to provide information about themselves when they register for a new service? In particular, if the service does not provide an essential, such as banking, but something quite ‘nice’ such as access to free articles, how will the public feel about registering and recording their voice? And how will they feel, eventually, if they are not given this option?