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Increased accuracy of speech recognition is just the beginning of how new interfaces are transforming the way we interact with computers.
"The real power isn't that any of these new approaches is perfect," says Henry Holtzman, who heads the MIT Media Lab's Information Ecology group. "But together they can allow us to have a much more human experience, where the technology is approaching us on our terms, instead of us having to learn how to use the technology."
Voice recognition is one of the drivers of this change, which turns around the standard approach to interacting with a computer. "We can say, 'Remind me that I have a meeting at five,' and that's very different from turning on the phone, getting to the home screen, picking the clock applications, putting it into alarm mode, and creating a new alarm," Holtzman says.
Traditionally most interfaces are designed around the second approach, in assembling a set of useful features and having the user learn how to use them. Even voice interfaces, such as those designed to improve accessibility for the handicapped, typically just add the ability to use voice commands to navigate the standard set of menus.
"But saying 'Remind me I have a meeting at five' is expressing a goal to the device, and having it do the steps for you," he says. That requires extra intelligence on the part of the computer.
Andrew Schrage, head of IT at MoneyCrashers, says he and other senior staff members at the company all use Siri, the virtual assistant on Apple's iPhone. "It has definitely improved productivity," he says. "We clearly get more things done on the go more expediently."
Siri can understand and carry out complex commands like "Remind me to call my assistant when I get home" and answer questions like "How deep is the Atlantic Ocean?"
"It has been somewhat of a game changer for us," Schrage says.
Apple's Siri is just one example of companies using artificial intelligence to figure out what the user wants to do, and one of the most ambitious ones, since a user could potentially ask Siri about anything.
A slightly easier job is understanding spoken language in limited contexts, such as, for example, banking and telecom call centers.
"We start with a generic set of rules that we know work for, say, the telecommunications industry, and then use that in conjunction with their specific domain," says Chris Ezekiel, CEO of Creative Virtual, a company that processes spoken and written speech for companies like Verizon, Virgin Media, Renault, and the UK's National Rail.
"'Hannah,' for instance, for [UK's] M&S Bank, knows all about their credit cards, loans, and other financial service products," he says.
For companies that deploy virtual assistants like Hannah, the goal is to answer questions that normally are handled by human staff. According to Ezekiel, these virtual agents typically average 20% to 30% success rates, and the systems are continuously updated to learn from previous encounters so that they can handle more queries.