Pragmatic Creativity

I have for a long time considered customers amazingly creative in their approaches to speech deployments. Maybe it's because early in my career I was a customer myself. I, therefore, know from personal experience that creativity comes from the need to tackle demanding problems whose solutions are constrained by set requirements.  It's a survival technique that I like to call pragmatic creativity.  Here are a couple of examples that explain what that expression means.

Problem: safe administration of prescriptions
Randy Allnatt has been blind from birth. In his job at the Veterans Administration (VA), he helps blind veterans find devices and technology that will help them function better in a "seeing" world.  He never expected to develop one of those devices himself. Ten years ago, his world changed when he accidentally took the wrong medication because he was not able to read the label on the pill bottle. He almost died in the hospital emergency room.

Allnatt related his experience to Anthony Mariano, a friend and co-worker at the VA, and asked if there was a device that would allow visually or cognitively impaired individuals to access the information on their prescription bottles. There was none.

The two men spent five years applying pragmatic creativity to the problem until they arrived at a disposable pill bottle that could be used by visually and cognitively-impaired patients. The bottle stores a recording of a text-to-speech generated voice reading the information on the label as it is typed by the pharmacist. A patient activates the voice by pressing a button on the side of the bottle. In 2000, the two men founded MediVox, a company they created to sell their invention. Four years later, Wizzard Software acquired Medivox. 

In September 2004, the U.S. Army applied its own brand of pragmatic creativity when it contracted with Medivox to distribute the bottles to patients in Afghanistan, many of whom are illiterate. Physicians with the Coalition Forces treat 10,000 children each month in southern Afghanistan's Pashtun tribal region alone. The talking pill bottles tell villagers in their own languages (using text-to-speech or recordings) how to administer their medications correctly and safely.

Problem: securing Web transactions
Associated Banc Corps introduced its eAccess online banking system in the summer of 2001 and by 2004 they had more than 50,000 active users. The bank views eAccess as a valuable resource for customer retention, differentiating Associated from its competitors, and increasing revenue opportunities.

The bank developed technology to enable customers not only to check balances, but also perform transactions - such as wire transfer, cash concentration, and stop payment - and access new bank products and services instantly, 24/7.  The rollout of those services depended upon the bank's ability to offer instant access combined with strong security. The choices ranked as the most secure were also expensive and difficult to implement on a large scale - especially with customers. These and other factors prevented them from satisfying the bank's "convenience" metrics as well.

The telephone was seen an inexpensive and convenient approach even though it introduced a second channel. They did not, however, view the telephone, by itself, as sufficiently secure to support some of the more sensitive self-service transactions that the bank wanted to offer.  They used pragmatic security to determine that two-factor and two-channel security could provide the levels of security, convenience, and cost containment they needed. They implemented Authentify's solution that combines speaker authentication over the telephone with dynamic data on the Web.

Pragmatic Creativity
These two examples illustrate how difficult problems forced customers to think "out of the box" about solutions. Certainly, before a customer can consider speech as a potential solution she needs to be aware of what speech technologies can do - even if no one has used them to do exactly what that customer needs. 

Before we rush to offer speech technology as a solution or allow it to be rejected out-of-hand we need to truly understand the problem facing the customer. A devotee of Gertrude Stein once asked her "What is the answer?" to which Stein simply responded "What is the question?" Pragmatic creativity is the result of answering Stein's question.

Judith Markowitz is the technology editor of Speech Technology magazineand is a leading independent analyst in the speech technology and voicebiometric fields. She can be reached at (773) 769-9243 orjmarkowitz@pobox.com.

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