Whatever Happened to Voice Recognition?

2010 July 21
Posted by Trevor

via CodingHorror.com

As Robert Fortner explained in Rest in Peas: The Unrecognized Death of Speech Recognition, after all these years, we’re desperately far away from any sort of universal speech recognition that’s useful or practical.

Now, we do have to clarify that we’re talking about universal recognition: saying anything to a computer, and having it reliably convert that into a valid, accurate text representation. When you constrain the voice input to a more limited vocabulary — say, just numbers, or only the names that happen to be in your telephone’s address book — it’s not unreasonable to expect a high level of accuracy. I tend to think of this as "voice control" rather than "voice recognition".

Still, I think we’re avoiding the real question: is voice control, even hypothetically perfect voice control, more effective than the lower tech alternatives? In my experience, speech is one of the least effective, inefficient forms of communicating with other human beings. By that, I mean …

  • typical spoken communication tends to be off-the-cuff and ad-hoc. Unless you’re extremely disciplined, on average you will be unclear, rambling, and excessively verbose.
  • people tend to hear about half of what you say at any given time. If you’re lucky.
  • spoken communication puts a highly disproportionate burden on the listener. Compare the time it takes to process a voicemail versus the time it takes to read an email.

I am by no means against talking with my fellow human beings. I have a very deep respect for those rare few who are great communicators in the challenging medium of conversational speech. Though we’ve all been trained literally from birth how to use our voices to communicate, voice communication remains filled with pitfalls and misunderstandings. Even in the best of conditions.

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