business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

Bloomberg has a fascinating piece about how "voice recognition has come a long way in the past few years. But it’s still not good enough to popularize the technology for everyday use and usher in a new era of human-machine interaction, allowing us to talk with all our gadgets — cars, washing machines, televisions. Despite advances in speech recognition, most people continue to swipe, tap and click. And probably will for the foreseeable future."

That's because the technology in many ways is still in its infancy. But, Bloomberg writes, there's also another problem - "a serious deficit of data," such as "audio of human voices, speaking in multiple languages, accents and dialects in often noisy places that can defeat the code."

As a result, "Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and China’s Baidu have embarked on a worldwide hunt for terabytes of human speech. Microsoft has set up mock apartments in cities around the globe to record volunteers speaking in a home setting. Every hour, Amazon uploads Alexa queries to a vast digital warehouse. Baidu is busily collecting every dialect in China.

"Then they take all that data and use it to teach their computers how to parse, understand and respond to commands and queries."

In just a short time, the story says, the technology has come a long way: "When Apple debuted Siri five years back, the personal assistant’s gaffes were widely mocked because it, too, routinely spat out incorrect results or didn’t hear the question correctly. When asked if Gillian Anderson is British, Siri provided a list of English restaurants.

"Now Microsoft says its speech engine makes the same number or fewer errors than professional transcribers, Siri is winning grudging respect, and Alexa has given us a tantalizing glimpse of the future."

That's because "The more a speech-recognition engine consumes, the better it gets at understanding different voices and the closer it gets to the eventual goal of having a natural conversation in many languages and situations." And these days, the technology is consuming a lot.

While the piece gets pretty technical, there's the Eye-Opening part that really grabbed me - the possibility (or, to be more accurate, the likelihood) that at any moment, there will be a breakthrough, "catapulting research forward and turning Alexa and Siri into true conversationalists."

And who knows where else it will catapult us?
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