The art of communication has always fascinated me. That interest led to my career choices of Public Relations, Communication, and Law. I’m also a linguaphile. I love studying, learning, and using multiple languages. I therefore read with great interest an article by the Senior Editor for AI at MIT Technology Review, Will Knight, on Conversational Interfaces: Powerful speech technology from China’s leading Internet company makes it much easier to use a smartphone.
As a native English speaker who has studied and learned many of the Latin/Romance based languages (Italian, French, Spanish, and Portuguese), I was ill prepared when assigned by my Army Reserve Unit to a Bulgarian language interrogation unit. It was the first time in my language studies that the language used characters and symbols I was unfamiliar with. It was also the first time I was exposed to sounds I was not familiar with either.
Years later I started to study Chinese. This I found more difficult than any other language. Not only were the characters and symbols completely unfamiliar, so were the intonations, the sing/song tones that make different meanings out of the same sound. While my ear started to learn to recognize the sounds, my eyes to this day struggle to make meaning out of the characters used to write Chinese. This is what interested me highly in what Mr. Knight expressed.
You see, the complexity of written Chinese if very hard to make readable on a smartphone. As a result, growing numbers of China’s 691 million smartphone users don’t swipe, tap, or type on their devices. They don’t have to because they can just talk to it.
Baidu is China’s most popular search engine. Baidu focused intense research into voice recognition technology because it recognized that the written Chinese language did not provide a useful method of user interface with small screened devices.
The challenge to develop accurate voice recognition devices in China is enormous. Imagine all the different dialects. Imagine just the sheer number of people. How is a device supposed to pick out your voice from the millions of other voices on the streets of Beijing? “It is a challenge and an opportunity”, says Andrew Ng, Baidu’s chief scientist.
And raise to the challenge they have. Baidu is ranked by most as the world leader in voice recognition technology.
In ranking this technology in the list of the Top 10 Breakthrough Technologies of 2016, MIT makes a defining statement about the technology when it states “The systems offer a glimpse of a future in which there’s less need to learn a new interface for every device”. Companies like Baidu, forced to invent out of necessity, combined with companies like Google, Apple, and Facebook, who are also developing voice recognition technologies, are creating the very world that science fiction writers envisioned years ago, where effective communication with Artificial Intelligence will be commonplace. It’s going to be a fun ride!