Speech recognition grows up and goes mobile

Having spread from desktops to mobile devices and beyond, voice recognition is no longer a novelty filling niche needs — and it’s spawning a new genre of gadgets.

voice assist

For three decades this was speech recognition: You would talk to your computer, typically using a head-mounted microphone and either the unpublicized speech-recognition app in Microsoft Windows or a version of Dragon NaturallySpeaking, from Nuance Communications. If you enunciated carefully, words would appear on the screen or commands would be executed.

Today, much-improved speech recognition is being widely deployed, and in the last two years, it has given birth to a new family of consumer products: voice-controlled personal assistants. “It’s an overnight success that was 30 years in the making,” says Adam Marchick, co-founder of VoiceLabs, which provides analytics for voice app developers. “It has finally gotten precise enough to have conversations.”

Like most things in technology, progress in speech recognition can be quantified. In August 2017, Microsoft announced that the word-recognition accuracy of its conversational speech-recognition system had, on industry-standard tests, exceeded the recognition accuracy of professional human transcribers. The average word error rate for professionals on such tests is 5.9%. The Microsoft system achieved 5.1%.

“It’s like a dream come true,” says Xuedong “X.D.” Huang, a Microsoft technical fellow and head of the company’s Speech and Language Group. “When we started on speech at Microsoft in 1993, the error rate was about 80%. When I started working on speech [in graduate school] in 1982, we were dealing with isolated words and I could not imagine [the software being able to recognize] conversational speech as good as a person.”

“Today, if you speak carefully with a generic accent in a quiet office, you will be getting close to 100% speech-recognition accuracy,” says Vlad Sejnoha, CTO at Nuance.

That level of accuracy means people are going to be talking to their phones more, chatting with robots on customer-service calls with greater ease and effectiveness, and using voice commands to make things happen in their homes and offices.

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