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Speak Easy

Advances in speech recognition software are extending the utility of traditional applications -- and paving the way for broader use.

By Gary Anthes
July 5, 2004 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - The velvety voice of that nice young woman on the other end of the phone is really just digits on a disk somewhere at Verizon Communications Inc., but "she" remembers that I spoke to her a few moments earlier, before I was interrupted by another call. "I apologize if I ask some questions you already answered," the voice says. She sounds genuinely contrite.
But the virtual telephone-repair lady is just getting warmed up. "I'll test your line from here," she intones. "OK, I got the line test started. It could take up to a minute. I'll also check to see if anything's changed on the line since you last called." While the test runs, she asks me for more information about my telephone problem, and she seems to understand my every response.
Presently she says, "The line test is finished now. Unfortunately, it couldn't determine if the problem is in Verizon's network or with your equipment, so we need to dispatch a technician. ... Here we are -- I've picked up all of our technicians' current schedules. The earliest we can schedule it is on Thursday, June 3, between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. Can someone give access to the premises at that time?" The call is soon completed, and on June 3, so is the repair.
Computerized speech has come a long way in 20 years. As Verizon's system illustrates, the technology has become smarter, easier to use and more integrated with other applications. Such technical advances, plus product introductions that facilitate the deployment of the technology by mainstream developers, are enabling new uses for automated speech systems.
A Long and Winding Road
Research in automated speech recognition goes back to the 1930s, but serious commercialization of it didn't begin until 50 years later. In 1988, Dragon Systems Inc. demonstrated a PC-based speech recognition system with an 8,000-word vocabulary. Users had to speak slowly and clearly. One. Word. At. A. Time.

Speak Easy
Image Credit: Plankton Art
The next big step came in 1990, when Dragon demonstrated a 5,000-word continuous-speech system for PCs and a large-vocabulary, speech-to-text system for general-purpose dictation. Then, in 1997, Dragon and IBM both introduced continuous speech recognition systems for general-purpose use.
Meanwhile, corporations began rolling out interactive voice response (IVR) systems. The earlier ones -- indeed, most in use today -- are menu-driven: "For your fund balance, say or press 'one.'" A few advanced systems are more conversational: "What city are you departing from?" Despite the steady advancements to bigger vocabularies, lower error rates and more natural interfaces, however, speech products have remained specialized

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