Gates, Speech Recognition And IBM's Stake In The Ground

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Grady Booch, chief scientist for IBM's Rational unit, notes a recent speech by Microsoft's Bill Gates that was bullish on speech recognition, and offers up a cold towel:

Microsoft has poured a lot of money into speech recognition, but don't forget that IBM already holds a number of key patents in this space, some of which it has placed in the open-source community. My skepticism comes from the observation that a lot of this technology is already mature (ever managed a flight by phone on United Airlines?) and that the two remaining really hard problems (extraction of conversion in a noisy environment and semantic understanding) are both, IMHO, still deeply wicked problems whose solution is a long way out. Furthermore, simply slapping a voice interface on top of a bad user interface does not a paradigm shift make.

That's a good amount of negativity for technology that IBM has done an awful lot of work developing and sharing. In fact, one of the industry's top evangelists for speech recognition is IBM's Alfred Spector, who in the past has provided a lot of energy in talking up the prospects for the technology. IBM has had a stake in the ground of many aspects of speech recognition for a while. And now might not be the best time to become bearish on speech, as Ashok Kumar notes on his blog:

Consider these interesting statistics: PC shipments in 2005 are expected to reach (just) 199 million as compared to 625 million mobile phones for the same period. In 2009, according to [research firm] Gartner, there would be 2.5 billion mobile users in the world, which will far out perform the personal computer reach.

So it's no wonder Gates is touting speech. Kumar continues:

For example, imagine a day when an application similar to Microsoft Money runs on your mobile phone and you update, say your expenses, by talking to the phone while making a purchase. That is what you can call instantaneous data capture (at the time of a business event) with almost no effort...and mind you, that happens on a device that you always carry with you. That day is almost here. ...

Going a step or two deeper into an enterprise, one can imagine a day when system management runs in much the same manner, and a solution provider's customer can call his server directly on a Sunday at 4 a.m. to fix a problem rather than calling the solution provider at home.

And as Booch notes, IBM does hold a number of patents in this area. It's a stake the company may want to plant even deeper in the coming years.

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