Talk of the Town
The most powerful software of the future may be your very own voice. . Illustration by Huan Tran.
Your wallet is empty and you're hungry, so you do the logical thing: You ask your car, "Where's the nearest ATM, and, by the way, where's the nearest sushi restaurant?" No, you're not crazy. You're just driving a Honda Accord equipped with Touch by Voice, a voice-recognition system powered by IBM. Seconds later, the car talks back through its speaker system, telling you where to load up on cash and also where to score a California roll. It all happens so effortlessly that you forget you're talking to a computer.
Slowly, discreetly but pervasively, voice recognition - where computers hear us speak and know what we mean - has become a part of our everyday lives. "It's amazing how often most of us now use voice recognition, frequently without realizing we are," says Peter Mahoney, vice president of marketing for Nuance Communications, a Burlington, Massachusetts-based developer of tools for what the trade calls "voice rec."
About a decade ago, when big companies first began experimenting with voice recognition, we definitely knew we were tangling with it, because most of the time the systems did not work. Computers would whine, "Could you say that again?" "Sorry. I don't understand." Our reaction was a swift no thanks - give us a person to speak with. Now computers do understand us. "Accuracy is much better today," says Mahoney, thanks to computers that are smarter and more powerful. Underlying recognition algorithms (the math that shapes the systems) have gotten better, too, as having 10 years of input has permitted researchers to tweak their formulas to let us speak more naturally but still be understood.