Is SPEECH RECOGNITION ready at last?

Putting that question to a PC-based speech-rec system like Dragon’s NaturallySpeaking or IBM’s ViaVoice once might have brought you this garbled translation: “Izpeach wreckanition red eatalas?”

We’re still decades away from complex chatter with machines. (“Computer, how many Sybeam-armed Frenobian warships patrol Alpha-Zygoria?”) But the technology for recognizing and responding to human speech is better than ever, whether on desktop dictation systems or in any number of promising applications working their way into everyday life.

You’ll use speech rec next time you call (800) 555-1212 to find a toll-free long-distance number. The “operator,” created by Tellme Networks, is surprisingly good at deciphering regional accents, even when they’re deliberately exaggerated. Numerous airlines (including American) use speech rec to dish info about arrival, departure, gates, and more. “Julie,” Amtrak’s automated phonemeister, handles schedules, reservations, and credit card charges. Or call Amazon.com at (800) 201-7575, and Tellme’s robo-female will track your recent purchases.

It’s almost like talking to a real person. And unlike a real person, she won’t get mad if you interrupt.