Money Talks: Speech in the Financial Market

[IMGCAP(1)]As speech recognition matures and moves from research and development into real world applications, companies need to find vertical markets where their products make sense. One of the companies leading speech technology into the financial services area is Applied Language Technologies, Inc. (ALTech) Earlier this year the company announced that digiTrade Inc., a software developer and service bureau operator for electronic-based financial services had chosen ALTech's SpeechWorks for its SpeakNow service bureau. DigiTrade's clients include many of the strongest financial institutions in the country, such as the Bank of America, Bear Stearns, Chase, Chubb, Citibank, Dreyfus, First Union, Norwest, New York Life, and T. Rowe Price. More recently, ALTech announced that its SpeechWorks™ technology is being used by Dialogic in a new product, SpeechWorks Host, and signed an agreement with IBM to deliver speech-driven telephony solutions. As a result, companies can build speech-activated telephone applications that will allow customers to complete transactions without a touch-tone menu. ALTech has also attracted investor interest from beyond the normal channels. A recent $5 million investment included an undisclosed sum from Intel. Speech Technology recently interviewed Stuart Patterson, CEO of ALTech, about his company's recent performance and the future of the speech industry. What is behind the new developments at ALTech, specifically the Intel investment? And how are you using funds?
It shows a lot of confidence in the sector. There are plenty of articles about venture capital out there, but it was nice to have investors come to us with new ways to put money to use. We have been able to move forward with international plans quicker than we would have been able to do otherwise. And we have added to our product team both on the core speech side and on the tools side. But I think the most important development has been the establishment of a rapid prototyping center, an industry first. The center, which we launched in March, gives customers an environment in which they can experiment with recognition technology, user interfaces, and the "behind the scenes" tools required to build services. It helps customers get a feel for dialogues. How will speech impact the financial services industry?
The banking industry is not moving as fast as brokers are in adopting the technology. Insurance would be a distant third, but we are seeing some interest there also. There are applications where people call to check on their benefits and the like. But in brokerage the most popular application is people calling in to check on the status of an order or their portfolio. Almost anything you can do over the Internet you can do over a telephone. E*Trade is amazing. It allows for over 50,000 different names. (You can call 1 800 786-2571 and say "Telemaster demo" for a demonstration.) What sort of changes do you see in speech in the next 3-5 years?
One of the things we feel pretty strong about is that speech technology has to mature like any other industry. We have to have less of an expectation that users will become speech experts. We need to work more on integrating speech into existing systems, like IVR. Another area that can be improved upon soon is the personalization of the voice. When you call a speech recognition system the machine often already knows what stocks you are interested in. It can be a dynamic customization, as in one-to-one marketing. There is just an enormous potential to make the interface more friendly. We are doing something there that will translate into great value. Our challenge is no longer selling speech as a possibility, but rather how to do it. Companies are seeing that it has use. What special challenges do financial services give speech solutions providers? What opportunities?
The challenges are in the security end, I suppose, but it is not a huge issue. I think the biggest challenge for us is not even a speech issue. The biggest thing is that a lot of financial services are coming into one. We have customers who are trying to incorporate a lot of applications under one roof. That is a lot harder than doing small applications one at a time. Obviously, that is a nice challenge to have. It means speech has a variety of applications, and can help in many different ways. The opportunity in the financial service area I think, is that they can point to the bottom line pretty quickly. Speech can be like Internet trading. It costs me less to trade stocks over the Internet than it does with Merrill Lynch. Speech can have the same impact on their business.
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