How Google’s ear hears you

If you own an iPhone, you can now be part of one of the most ambitious speech-recognition experiments ever launched. Google has added voice search to its iPhone mobile application, allowing people to speak search terms into their phones and view the results on the screen…

Fortunately, Google also has a huge amount of data on how people use search, and it was able to use that to train its algorithms. If the system has trouble interpreting one word in a query, for instance, it can fall back on data about which terms are frequently grouped together…

But the data that Google used to build the system pales in comparison to the data that it now has the chance to collect. “The nice thing about this application is that Google will collect all this speech data,” says Jim Glass, a principal research scientist at MIT. “And by getting all this data, they will improve their recognizer even more.”

Speech-recognition systems, however, remain far from perfect. And people’s frustration skyrockets when they can’t find their way out of a voice-menu maze. But Google’s implementation of speech recognition deftly sidesteps some of the technology’s shortcomings, says Glass.

The beauty of search engines is that they don’t have to be exactly right,” he says. When a user submits a spoken query, he says, Google’s algorithms “just take it and stick it in a search engine, which puts the onus on the user to select the right result or try again.” Because people are already used to refining their queries as they conduct Web searches, Glass says, they’re more tolerant of imperfect results.

The chuckle is that for years, geek like me and pundits like JCD have easiy accepted Microsoft’s dedication to – and leadership in – developing systems for speech recognition. They bought Dragonspeak and, let’s face it, it always was something special that Bill Gates was personally focused on.

Here comes Google from a different direction – and a fraction of time in the game – and they’re suddenly out in front of the pack. Is it because they represent a fresh start or simply weren’t stuck in the ruts of what looked like it was going to work – ten years ago? Or both?

One thought on “How Google’s ear hears you

  1. moss says:

    The key for me is that Google figured out how actually to do something with the technology right off the bat.

    Microsoft has been dicking around with speech recognition for years and never attempted a product that I can recall as anything useful in a mass market. Yes, there were humanitarian tries – not very successful; but, shoving a pretty good product out into the market gets it developed to very good, very soon.

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