Being modern: Voice-control technology

Simmy Richman
Sunday 30 January 2011 01:00

It is a measure of how far voice-control technology has come that you have just read this sentence. The original idea was that your correspondent would speak a line into a machine that turns what you say into text and then open with the gobbledygook the machine had "recognised". Sadly, the ugly facts rather killed the beautiful theory (or, as the machine, still not quite perfect, would have it, "the beautiful scenery").

Of all the futuristic fads and fancies we now have at our fingertips, speech recognition would seem to be the thing with the most multifarious uses. Who can't imagine stepping into their home and turning the lights on while ordering Marvin Gaye to croon gently in the background? And all without lifting a finger. Voice-control technology... the 21st-century way to access our inner Austin Powers. Yeah, baby!

If only it worked properly. Because while it has come on in leaps and bounds, the opportunity for misunderstanding is as infinite as the applications. You tell your iPhone to play Bruce Springsteen, and it ends up phoning your boss. You order it to "Pause music" and it ends up dialling your mother. It is almost always easier to lift that finger.

Which makes the scientific community's persistence in this area allthe more surprising. Speech recognition has been around since the early 1950s. A decade later, IBM proudly unveiled its Shoebox, a computer that could recognise the numbers nought to nine as well as 16 spoken words from "plus" to "minus" to "total" – an innovation that did not trouble developers of the pocket calculator in the following decade.

How it has come on. Now, it's on our phones, it's in our cars, it's there when we want to talk to a human being in a call centre and when we want to book cinema tickets – and anyone who has used it will be especially concerned that developments in the field are targeting fighter aircraft. And translating speech into foreign languages. A thought that, as the Monty Python Hungarian Phrasebook would have it, will make all of our nipples explode with delight.

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