Speech-recognition technology is rapidly improving

Jul 23, 2009 By Troy Wolverton

Maybe I watched too much "Star Trek" when I was younger, but I love the idea of being able to command things in my house or in my car by talking to them.

I'd love to be like the Enterprise's Captain Picard and get a cup of tea by walking up to a wall panel and saying "Earl Grey, hot."

I'm not holding out for a voice-activated replicator. I'd settle for simpler stuff, such as being able to set the thermostat, turn on my oven, switch off the lights or record a ballgame by simply speaking my wishes out loud.

Unfortunately, my real-life experience with technology -- and I'm guessing yours, too -- has been nothing like "Star Trek." Instead, it's been largely frustrating and sometimes infuriating, what with voice-dialing cell phones that can't understand who you're asking them to call and phone trees that respond to simple voice commands but won't direct you to a live person who can handle more complex questions.

But if speech recognition advocates are to be believed, the science fiction world of widespread and well-functioning voice-controlled devices and appliances is finally just around the corner.

"I think we're seeing a real renaissance here," said Bill Meisel, a longtime follower of speech-recognition technology and editor of Speech Strategy News, an industry newsletter.

Meisel foresees a not-so-far-off world in which our mobile phones serve as a universal remote that allows us to control and program everything from TiVos to alarm clocks with our voice.

Todd Mozer, CEO of Sensory, a Sunnyvale, Calif.-based speech-recognition company, envisions a soon-to-come world filled with speech-controlled Internet devices, or SCIDs.

One example of such a device might be a clock radio that could not only tell you the current time when asked, but could also, using its Internet connection, tell you the weather in Boston.

Regardless of how the future unfolds, advocates such as Meisel and Mozer say it's nearer than most people might think. Voice recognition is not some pipe dream, but a maturing technology that has improved in recent years and already works well in certain circumstances.

Widespread adoption of speech recognition has been delayed by problems with accuracy, advocates acknowledge. But thanks to Moore's law, computers and microprocessors are getting faster at processing spoken words. They're also able to sort through and compare what's spoken with increasingly large databases of recognized words and ways of saying them.

Developers are also improving accuracy by narrowing the problem.

Some do that by limiting the number of words a device needs to understand. A Bluetooth headset, say, may recognize only a handful of commands. But it will understand those commands so well that it can respond to them, no matter a person's accent and despite having to listen for them over a talk-radio program.

Another way of narrowing the problem is to categorize the information sought, or focus on industry-specific vocabularies. Some speech-to-text programs, for example, are specifically designed for particular medical professions, such as radiology.

But it's more than just improved accuracy that has advocates excited about prospects for speech-recognition. The technology has become a big business, and major corporations, such as Apple, Microsoft and Google, are pushing it. Speech recognition technologies have become commonplace not only in cell phones and phone trees, but also in particular industries, such as transcribing medical records or even for use by workers in larger warehouses.

And two other trends could help move speech technologies into consumers' homes. One is the growing demand for more "natural" ways of interacting with technology products, such as by using gestures on a touch-screen or via motion-sensing controllers. Some analysts think speech works well in tandem with other natural interfaces.

The other trend is the growing number of home networks and Internet-connected devices. Having a network connection allows devices to download updates that would improve their speech recognition capabilities over time. It also can let devices tap into more powerful speech recognizers either on the local network or out on the Internet.

Indeed, getting speech-controlled devices into the mainstream is becoming less an issue of technology than consumer acceptance, advocates say. The more consumers are exposed to speech recognition services and have positive experiences, the more likely they'll seek speech-based interfaces in other areas, argues Meisel.

"People's attitudes have been colored by unpleasant experiences," said Meisel. "(Those) attitudes will change."

Here's hoping he's right. Dreams of "Star Trek" aside, I'd be happy to simply have my phone recognize when I want to dial my sister.


(c) 2009, San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.).
Visit MercuryNews.com, the World Wide Web site of the Mercury News, at www.mercurynews.com
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

Explore further: Ride-sharing app Lyft expands to new markets

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Researchers produce 'neural fingerprint' of speech recognition

Nov 10, 2008

Scientists from Maastricht University (Netherlands) have developed a method to look into the brain of a person and read out who has spoken to him or her and what was said. With the help of neuroimaging and data mining techniques ...

IBM Research Unleashes Powerful Speech Software

Aug 18, 2008

(PhysOrg.com) -- IBM today announced the availability of state-of-the-art speech recognition software to clients and partners exploring the development of real-world consumer and business solutions.

A computer can pick out speech even amid cacophony

Nov 26, 2008

(PhysOrg.com) -- Using a recent development in speech recognition, it is possible to search through television news programmes provided the recognition system has been trained beforehand. PhD candidate Marijn ...

Recommended for you

Review: 'Hearthstone' card game is the real deal

15 hours ago

Video game publishers don't take many risks with their most popular franchises. You know exactly what you are going to get from a new "Call of Duty" or "Madden NFL" game—it will probably be pretty good, ...

Microsoft expands ad-free Bing search for schools

Apr 23, 2014

Microsoft is expanding a program that gives schools the ability to prevent ads from appearing in search results when they use its Bing search engine. The program, launched in a pilot program earlier this year, is now available ...

Growing app industry has developers racing to keep up

Apr 20, 2014

Smartphone application developers say they are challenged by the glut of apps as well as the need to update their software to keep up with evolving phone technology, making creative pricing strategies essential to finding ...

Android gains in US, basic phones almost extinct

Apr 18, 2014

The Google Android platform grabbed the majority of mobile phones in the US market in early 2014, as consumers all but abandoned non-smartphone handsets, a survey showed Friday.

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Aug 05, 2009
Non English Devices? Microwaves that understand more langauges than most humans? Looking forward to that! ;-)

More news stories

Genetic code of the deadly tsetse fly unraveled

Mining the genome of the disease-transmitting tsetse fly, researchers have revealed the genetic adaptions that allow it to have such unique biology and transmit disease to both humans and animals.