"I've come across more and more people who've actually tried reading science fiction and can't make it make sense."
There is a short mention of this in Queen of Angels. The unit functions in an apartment that clearly belongs to an upper caste person; it is probably an expensive item. Besides working as an answering machine, it has speech recognition and schedule keeping functionality.
There is a continuing fascination for devices like this in sf; another favorite example is the Daily Schedule (DS) in The Dosadi Experiment by Frank Herbert.
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