Speech Is Gaining Invisibility

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For years, many predicted that speech technology would simply become invisible. There are many ways of defining invisibility as it relates to technology: In some cases, the technology might not work well enough, and it would simply disappear. In others, the technology might live up to expectations but the market just isn’t ready for it, relegating it to sit on a shelf somewhere until the public comes around. Then there are the really rare cases where the technology works so well that it could very easily start to disappear into the inner workings of the devices we use every day. It would be everywhere, and people would use it effortlessly, without even giving it a second thought. It would act invisibly, behind the scenes, doing what it’s supposed to without drawing a lot of attention to itself. And in the final scenario, the technology flourishes for a while only to be replaced by the next shiny new gadget.

The computer mouse is going that route. The ubiquitous computer accessory as we know it today was invented by Doug Engelbart in 1964. Originally referred to as an “X-Y Position Indicator for a Display System,” the mouse remained in obscurity for nearly 20 years while the public got used to the idea of being able to point and click across computer screens. It took off when a much sleeker version shipped with Apple Macintosh computers in 1984. Today, the mouse is still widely used, but its future is in jeopardy, as touchpads and touchscreens threaten to make it obsolete.

Luckily for the speech technology industry, speech is taking a different route: Speech is becoming invisible, but taking on the role of disruptor rather than disruptee.

People are coming to realize that it’s a lot easier to speak to computers than it is to click, scroll, and type. Thanks to natural language understanding, artificial intelligence, machine learning, neural networking, and other technology advances, talking to machines today truly has become just as easy and efficient as talking to another human being, and that is helping to bring speech technology back from the brink.

In fact, analyst firms across the board are now predicting very robust growth, particularly in the consumer segment, for speech technologies. BCC Research, for example, valued the global market for voice recognition technologies—including automatic speech recognition, text-to-speech, speaker verification, speech analytics, call center interactive voice response, and voice-enabled mobile search, among others—at $104.4 billion in 2016 and predicts that it will reach $184.9 billion in 2021, just five short years away.

Using voice to interface with consumer products, such as computers, tablets, smartphones, smart home systems, and other wearable devices, has already become quite common and will only become more so. It is estimated that more than half of all human interactions with computers will be voice-assisted by 2025, and that is a conservative estimate if you ask me.

Just look at the accomplishments of the winners presented in this, our 11th Annual Speech Industry Awards issue, and you’ll see that speech is cropping up in all sorts of new and amazing ways. More innovation has come out in the past three years than in the previous 30, and 2025 is still eight years away. A few years ago, would anyone have expected to be able to ask a smart speaker in the kitchen to start the car in the driveway? Would anyone have expected speech to reach near-human-level performance? Would anyone have thought that speech would be able to identify people at risk for Alzheimer’s disease? All this, and lots more, is possible today with speech technology.

There are some incredibly exciting developments just over the horizon, and finally enough people seem ready for them now. Voice-first technology has definitely found its way into everyday life. Let’s just hope it stays there for a long time to come, and becomes even more invisible—but in the good way.

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

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