Speech Prevailed in a Year of Incredible Turmoil

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I’m sure that I was not alone in celebrating the passing of 2021. Just when I thought 2020 was by far the worst year in my lifetime, 2021 came along.

As it was in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic was the biggest story for most of 2021. Vaccine and mask mandates, government stimulus checks, school and business closures, travel restrictions, and other measures did little to stop the virus, which reemerged time and time again with new variants.

2021 will also be sadly remembered for the Great Resignation, deep divisions on so many political and social issues, inflation, supply chain disruption, rising crime, skyrocketing prices, a contentious election, and other crises across the world.

Thankfully, not everything that happened in 2021 was bad, though. As we highlight in our annual “State of the Speech Technology Industry” report in this issue, 2021 was a very good year for the speech industry. COVID-19 forced many companies to seek out new ways to communicate with customers. Employees were sent to work from home, accelerating new technology purchases, refreshes, and upgrades. And artificial intelligence seemed to find its way into virtually every business system known to man.

Speech technologies were among the largest beneficiaries of the huge influx of AI. AI profoundly touched each of the seven technology sectors we cover in this year’s report.

Because of AI, speech engines are far more accurate, able to deliver results in much less time, and able to be embedded on far more devices and platforms, with a much smaller footprint. Developers can build speech interfaces with far greater capabilities, create them once and deploy them across a wider number of applications, operating systems, and form factors, and incorporate a far wider collection of datasets on which to model their products. Analytics and biometrics can produce results in near-real time, take apart a much larger collection of interactions across more channels, and provide real-time guidance across a far bigger set of inquiry types. Virtual assistants can communicate in far more languages, understand far more inputs, respond to far more requests, and bring in data from far more sources. All of this has combined to make speech far more reliable, accessible, and robust, which has increased its acceptance among consumers and businesses alike.

Callan Schebella, executive vice president of product management at Five9, explained AI’s impact best. Improvements with AI have been “explosive,” he says. “You can do things with speech recognition now that were only possible in a lab a few years ago.”

But, as we also saw in this year’s reporting, speech is also experiencing huge gains in demand, declining costs, greater reliability in noisy and multi-speaker environments, and an ability to more closely mimic human conversations with all the required context and emotion.

Speech technology vendors have made a lot of progress in addressing longstanding challenges, but there are still obstacles to overcome. Among them are growing data security and privacy concerns, new fraud threats as crooks look to exploit deepfakes and other loopholes, ever-increasing customer demands and expectations, and cross-platform integrations.

But, as Schebella goes on to say: “Within the next five years, every major brand will have an AI-powered voice channel for customer service, in the same way that every brand has a website. Just like in the 1990s and early 2000s, when there was a rush by organizations to establish an online presence, businesses will be expected to have an intelligent, conversational interface to meet customers’ expectations for engagement.”

The speech technology industry has proven itself more than ready and able to knock down barriers. I have every reason to believe that no hurdle is too high and no gap is too wide, and I am not alone in that belief. After all, not even COVID could stop the speech industry’s wave of innovation in an otherwise horrible year.

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

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