Wednesday, December 06, 2006

One Day Hun, Blunder Serve Fails Lance

A speech recognition engine might transcribe the spoken phrase "One Nation, Under Surveillance" as "One Day Hun, Blunder Serve Fails Lance." Or to "Won Nary Tons Fundies Sir Salient." Or to "Dear aunt, let's so double the killer delete select all," as happens in this Microsoft Speech Recognition demo for their new Vista operating system. The poor product manager tries to dictate a "dear mom" letter in front of a bunch of reviewers, and hilarity ensues. Ah, yes. I know it well. This is my field, and I briefly had that guy's exact job several years back; they let me have it for awhile until they could find someone calmer, less prone to seizures, someone who wouldn't randomly scream out "Auaaaagggh!" in meetings, with no visible eye-twitch or physical abnormalities. And I was the lucky one. They found the new guy before I had to give one of these demos. Auaaaagggh!

Seriously, speech recognition has gotten pretty good. But it's also still sensitive, imperfect, and unpredictable, so it's not really ready for prime time in free-form applications like speaking English. It best performs repetitive tasks in narrow domains. Trying to understand people speaking full sentences is hard enough for a human, and some days I wonder if they do it very well at all. To be fair, the technology has come a very long way, and has gotten pretty good unless, say, you have a sinus infection or a fluorescent light happens to be on. Speaking of lights, it's very good at tasks like switching a light on and off. Almost always.

Our government, in its desire to be helpful, is applying speech recognition technology (not Microsoft's) to the problem of listening to phone conversations, you know, so we can tell who's running terrorist cells and where they're going to attack next. Last I checked I think the National Security Agency admitted to having about a $40 billion yearly budget, give or take a few score unreported black projects and a few hundred contractors. Making technology work for you. Feel better now?

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