Dictating the future of personal computers: Improved voice recognition allows hands-off word processing

CAN'T TYPE? Tired of correcting spelling mistakes? Like to talk as you work? Help is now at hand, for those who don't mind speaking slowly. Last week IBM began shipping the Personal Dictation System, which allows you to enter text into a personal computer by speaking. Users dictate into either a hand-held or headset microphone, and the screen displays their words as they talk. The text can then be transferred into a number of standard word-processing packages.

The Personal Dictation System needs to be hooked up to at least a 486 personal computer. The computer also needs to be fitted with a Dictation Adapter, a speech card that converts analogue signals from the microphone into digital code. The basic system has a vocabulary of 32,000 words, with additional technical vocabularies available for journalists and various medical practitioners. Further vocabularies for lawyers and doctors are under development.

At present the system is on sale only in the US, at a cost of about dollars 1,000, but will be available in Europe later this year in UK English, Spanish, German, French and Italian versions.

Before the dictation system will work, each user has to train the computer to understand his or her voice by reading to it for 90 minutes. The program then builds a mathematical model of the individual's voice pattern to take account of accent and speech characteristics. When the user dictates into the machine, the speech waveform is digitised and matched with a library of word models.

This pattern-matching approach was rejected by early researchers into speech input systems in the 1960s in favour of rule-based artificial intelligence systems, because it requires huge computing power. Rapid increases in computer technology mean this power is now available on the desktop.

The system can cope with no more than 70 words a minute. Each word must be distinct, with a pause between each. Talking this way is an acquired skill and seems tortuously slow. However, non-professional typists rarely type accurately at this rate, and once the words are accepted there should be no spelling errors.

Other features include a Voice Action Editor, which enables users to create personal instructions. For example, a lawyer could produce a standard disclaimer. Whenever that paragraph has to be inserted in a letter, 'standard disclaimer' are the only words needed. The system can also be taught commands such as 'bold type' or 'new paragraph'. It understands all the commands in the computer's menu.

Speech input has been a long-term goal of computer scientists, but so far systems have been too slow and error-prone to gain widespread commercial acceptance, and have mainly been used by disabled people who could not type at all. Many other computer companies remain doubtful that speech recognition can be made accurate enough for widespread use. They also argue that the latest computer interfaces make machines so easy to use that speech input is irrelevant.

But IBM says the Personal Dictation System will be particularly useful for those who need to use their hands while working. They will be able to dictate instructions or reports at the same time. For example, a radiologist could report on a series of X-rays by speaking into the headset microphone while examining the film. The system could also be used by people who have suffered repetitive strain injuries using computer keyboards.

IBM's confidence in the Personal Dictation System is partly based on a similar system that has been available on its workstation computers for the past year. The company says that more than 70 software companies are committed to developing applications based on its speech technology.

A series of speech recognition products will be launched in the next few months. Elton Sherwin, the market development manager for speech recognition at IBM, says: 'What we can do today is already radically different from what we could do even two years ago.

'We only became comfortable with accuracy for double numbers like dollars 14.40, dollars 15.50 in July 1993. But perfecting the recognition of numbers will allow sophisticated financial management by phone or cable.' As a result, he believes, speech recognition systems will be available on interactive cable systems in the US within 18 months - for paying bills, playing games, ordering movies and so on.

Although these applications will require speaker independence - operating without first being trained to understand each voice, and with continuous speech capabilities - the vocabulary required will be very limited. IBM already has a continuous speech toolkit for developing applications which can be used with a 1,000-word active vocabulary chosen from a base of 20,000 words, and the next stage will be to adapt this for the commands needed to operate a cable TV system.

IBM is also testing the continuous speech system in collaboration with police forces, so that, for example, police officers can ask the computer in their car to search for a registration number while chasing a suspect, or request background information about someone they have detained. Other software companies are using the system to develop applications for casinos, court reporting, health care and financial services.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
election 2015The 10 best quotes of the campaign
A caravan being used as a polling station in Ford near Salisbury, during the 2010 election
election 2015The Independent's guide to get you through polling day
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month
voicesWhat I learnt from my years in government, by the former Home Secretary David Blunkett
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Ashdown Group: Editor-in-chief - Financial Services - City, London

£60000 - £70000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Ashdown Group: Junior Application Support Analyst - Fluent German Speaker

£25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A global leader operating...

Guru Careers: Management Accountant

£27 - 35k + Bonus + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Management Accountant is needed ...

Guru Careers: Project Manager / Business Analyst

£40-50k + Benefits.: Guru Careers: A Project Manager / Business Analyst is nee...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'