• MAY 15, 2001

Computers: Manís best friend?

Books have known to be manís best friends, but then that was long before the information technology revolution. Post IT revolution, it seems the PC might have just displaced the books. The PC seems here to stay, added with another feature that might bring the PC even more closer to man. This feature is speech.

The most common form of input to the computers, especially when the data is textual in nature, is the keyboard. This has its own disadvantages, like not knowing how to type. Even if one knows how to type, it does not prevent typos (typographical errors) from creeping in. Therefore, there was always felt a need for an easier to use input device.

This led to the development of the commercial speech recognition software. These software can take dictation. The accuracy is known to be as high as 97%. But once there is a technology to convert voice into textual data the possibilities are endless. This software could be used for querying in plain English, extract data from database or simply for the purpose of coding. The market for speech recognition software according to Cahners In-Stat Group, is expected to grow from US$ 200 m currently US$ 2.7 bn by 2005. One of the likely users of speech recognition software is the call centre industry, wherein customers could query for information on databases through the telephone.

But it does not stop here. The leading technology labs are working to create technology that would enable us to engage in conversations with the computers. This would require technology to extend beyond speech recognition into areas like conversation analysis, natural language understanding, reasoning ability and speech generation.

The objective is to help users so that they can keep their hands free. Initially these features will be a part of computers but as technology develops almost all devices could have them, thus creating intelligent environments. The interest in not purely academic but heavy weights in the technology arena like IBM and Microsoft seem to be quite interested in this area. Microsoft is traditionally a software company, which has focused on products for commercial applications. But now it is looking into newer areas like the entertainment segment with the launch of Xbox. In effect tech heavyweights are increasingly touching other areas of human life, which have nothing to do with business applications.

According to Michael Dertouzos, director of MITís Laboratory for Computer Science (LCS) ďAfter 40 years of humans serving computers, people are finally beginning to wake up and demand that the relationship be reversedĒ.

The people want machines to be simpler and address human needs to improve the quality of life. It is not long before the makers and users of computers will change their focus from machines to people. And then the computer will become and friend more than a master as it is today.

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