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Speak up, dear. Your computer is listening

By Tom ReganStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 6, 2000

It's early Monday morning. You climb into your car, turn on the engine, and the first thing you hear is, "Good morning, dear." It's the voice of your wife. Only she's not in the car. It's the voice-enabled computer in your car that acts as your personal assistant - you've just programmed it with your wife's voice.

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After returning the greeting - after all, one has to be polite to one's spouse, even when she's computer-generated - you ask for your daily appointments and any important future meetings that week. Your personal assistant says she'll be just a minute and soon returns with your entire day's appointments, along with last night's Major League Baseball scores.

Your first appointment is an important phone call to your distributor in Germany. You voice-activate your cellphone, tell it to turn on voice translation, so when your distributor speaks in German, you hear an understandable and smooth English translation. When you start to talk, your German friend will hear you speaking in German, translated on the fly, in a voice that she's already chosen to represent all English-language speakers.

Not science-fiction

Think it's all science fiction? Read on.

Welcome to the amazing world of voice recognition, one of technology's most intriguing, most promising, and yet most-challenging new sectors.

The idea behind voice recognition has been around for years. Who isn't familiar with the image of Captain Picard ordering a cup of Earl Grey, hot. But it wasn't until 1997, when Dragon Systems introduced Naturally Speaking, the first commercially available continuous-speech software (which means you don't have to pause between words), that voice-recognition technology became available to the public.

Last week, the field received a dramatic boost when Lernout and Hauspie (L&H) of Burlington, Mass., one of the leading voice-recognition companies, announced that it would acquire Dragon Systems. The move brings together some of the best scientists working on voice recognition, with an eye to getting the technology into as many different computers and Internet devices as possible.

"Frankly, we've been challenged because of a lack of manpower," says Bill Destefanis, senior director of project management for L&H. "Instead of competing with each other, we decided to work together because we feel we can get farther that way and faster."

So how realistic is the idea of using your voice to interact with a computer? Very realistic, if you listen to the engineers and scientists at L&H. That's why the company and its competitors (primarily Philips and IBM) see this emerging technology as one with an incredible "upside."

"We really do see speech being used in common human devices," says Mr. Destefanis. "Just take hands-free dialing. Six states have legislation that mandates cellular phones may only be used in cars if they are done so in a hands-free manner.

"Or take set-top TV boxes. They will be used to drive a fairly sophisticated computer on top of the television that will give people incredible access to information. If we don't use voice to control these set-top TV boxes, all that remains are those clunky remote controls. People will feel far more comfortable using their voice to program a computer than they will a remote control," he says.