Speech Is Up for Any Challenge

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Voice technology underwent a huge boom in 2020, and it is not showing signs of slowing any time soon. Google’s Sofia Altuna, head of global product partnerships for Google Assistant and host of the “VOICE Talks” podcast series, made the following observation recently:

“In a year of myriad challenges, voice technology in 2020 has become even more vital, from work and education to entertainment, cooking, gaming, and more. And as we all have increasingly relied on voice, our voice tech community has flourished. We’ve seen how passionate this community is to share best practices and further develop voice tools to be even more accessible and inclusive for diverse audiences worldwide.”

Our reporting for this issue of Speech Technology magazine supports those claims. In our annual “State of the Speech Technology Industry” report, we noted huge gains in each of the seven major speech categories—speech engines, speech developer platforms, speech analytics, intelligent virtual assistants, voice biometrics, assistive technologies, and artificial intelligence—that we have been tracking for the past few years.

As expected, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic fueled much of the growing demand for speech technologies. As consumers were forced to stay home and avoid physical contact with one another, their interactions shifted to digital channels, and voice has become the interface of choice for many of those interactions.

Companies and employees also got a taste of working from home amid the pandemic, and the large majority of them found that the remote model worked exceptionally well for them. Expectations are that workers will not be heading back to the office anytime soon, which will further feed the gains that speech technology made in a chaotic 2020.

Our research also uncovered a wealth of technological innovation in the speech arena in the past year, spurred on mostly by advances in artificial intelligence; activity was particularly robust around applications of machine learning, neural networking, natural language, and other technologies that fall into the AI basket.

“Unsurprisingly, the coronavirus was a major catalyst for AI adoption and innovation in speech technology. Widespread social isolation and the need for remote communication and connection pushed conversational AI technologies to center stage,” Bill Rogers, CEO of Orbita, says in one of our reports.

As someone who’s been tracking the industry for more than 15 years, I’ve been amazed at how far the industry has come in just the past few years. Gone are the days of robotic-sounding speech synthesis, disconnected interactive voice response systems, error-prone speech recognition and speech-to-text systems, and biometrics systems that fail to grant access to authorized users while letting fraudsters slip in. Today’s systems are more capable, accurate, secure, and lifelike—not to mention easier to use and cheaper to deploy.

Research and development of speech systems was already under way in many sectors, but the coronavirus pandemic accelerated timelines. R&D became a huge market differentiator for leading vendors, while smaller vendors were allowed to carve out their own unique niches within the industry. Both of these bode well for an industry that many felt just a few years ago was dying out.

Now, as we all inch closer to normal and the world starts getting back to business, our reliance on speech technology will not and cannot let up. We’ve seen what the technology can do—particularly under the worst of times—and we like it. We’ve gotten used to talking to machines and having them respond appropriately and carry out our requests. We’ve found safety in having Alexa order supplies for us when lockdowns prevented us from stepping into our favorite stores. We received comfort from chatbots and intelligent assistants that were able to provide us with critical virus updates and vaccine information, and we stayed in touch with colleagues, friends, relatives, and customers through new voice and video channels that weren’t available just a few years ago.

Everyone wants things to get back to normal. But, for the speech industry, the old normal would be a terrible regression.

As one industry insider concluded, the pressure is on for speech to keep getting better and better. Luckily, the industry seems up to the challenge.

Leonard Klie is the editor of Speech Technology magazine. He can be reached at lklie@infotoday.com.

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