In the past week, those British iPhone users who pride themselves at frolicking at the bleeding edge of technology have been bellowing into their handsets in a remarkable range of accents. That's because Google has launched a Voice Search facility for the device; it senses when you lift it to your head, it beeps, waits for a phrase to emerge from your mouth, and then presents the search results on the screen. In theory, that saves you the 10 seconds you would have spent keying it in – although in practice it only works if you accurately adopt the dulcet tones of a Silicon Valley computer programmer.
This is the latest chapter in a rocky relationship between our voices and technology. Macintosh computers have had some kind of elementary voice recognition software built in since 1993; Windows users had to wait another 10 years or so, and even then it wasn't officially supported. Neither was powerful enough for obvious applications such as dictation; the Mac version allowed you to open a file by holding down a key and loudly saying "Open" in a deliberate manner – ignoring the fact that you could already have opened said file by pressing a key approximately one inch away.
Most of us are perfectly happy to interact with computers in blissful silence; while it's briefly amusing to watch them respond to orders, it's only ever going to feel natural if they respond accurately to a casual murmur, regardless of any background noise. Barking loudly at an erratic machine that's unable to distinguish between accents isn't only stressful and unproductive; it has the capacity to turn the office environment into a cross between a computer science lesson and an army training ground.
But the rapid development of voice recognition technology means that we may be freed from the supposed tyranny of the keyboard and mouse before long. American defence departments are placing more faith in a computer's ability to activate weapons via a voice command than a pilot's ability to press a button marked "fire". On a more mundane level, the mobile voicemail service Spinvox is showing the way forward in turning voice into text; it's far from infallible (Rhodri invariably becomes Roderick), but if its descendants ever let us chat casually to computers, there'll be several thousand people with carpal tunnel syndrome who'll be punching the air in glee.
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