The 2016 Speech Industry Luminaries: Alex Lebrun

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Alex Lebrun

Facebook M’s teacher

When Facebook acquired Wit.ai, a San Francisco–based start-up building a speech-recognition developer platform, in January 2015, it brought over company cofounder and CEO Alex Lebrun to help the social media giant improve how people communicate not only with computers but also with businesses.

At Facebook, Lebrun was instrumental in the development of the customer service bots and the M personal digital assistant that are tucked into Facebook Messenger. Both products launched in the past year.

Lebrun also heads a team of dozens of contractors employed by Facebook as human trainers for M, validating the answers that M’s artificial intelligence engine retrieves when questions come in. He continues to work on many other artificial intelligence and speech projects at Facebook, which is rumored to be looking into voice control as part of Facebook’s native app and adding a speech-to-text input for Messenger.

Lebrun remains the head of Wit.ai, which still exists inside Facebook. More than 45,000 developers use the company’s platform to build natural language voice and text interfaces for bots, mobile apps, home automation systems, wearable devices, and robots. While building speech applications is typically a very complicated process, Wit.ai enables developers to add speech recognition and voice control to their products with just a few lines of code.

Deborah Dahl, principal at Conversational Technologies and chair of the World Wide Web Consortium’s Multimodal Interactions Working Group, points out that one of the biggest impediments to the widespread use of natural language understanding in applications has always been the development process. “With a focus on ease of development, Wit.ai has made natural language technology available to a much wider range of applications than was previously possible,” she says. “Not only is the Web-based developer interface intuitive and easy to use, but the API is also well designed, which makes it easy to integrate the natural language understanding capabilities into applications.”

Wit.ai is also unique in that it offers an open and extensible natural language platform that learns human language from every interaction and leverages its community of developers to crowdsource solutions to technical problems.

Lebrun previously founded and was CEO of VirtuOz, a creator of intelligent virtual agents that was acquired by Nuance Communications in January 2013. He served briefly as vice president of special projects at Nuance before cofounding Wit.ai in early 2014.

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