Baby Steps for Speech Recognition

Article excerpt

HELLO and welcome to our visitor from The Christian Science Monitor.

Hal, is that you?

I am the system for real-time translation of unrestricted text into speech, developed in the Information Principles Laboratory at AT&T Bell Labs.... My inventors think my word pronunciation and intelligibility are the best around.

OK, maybe you're not Hal, the famous talking computer of "2001: A Space Odyssey." But you're a distant cousin. You tell me a children's nursery rhyme in Mandarin Chinese. You pronounce foreign names. You even get my name right (at least the American pronunciation), even though you've never seen it before.

Of course, that's the easy part. You'll say whatever Richard Sproat of Bell Labs types onto your screen. But there's more. You also understand what people say.

This is the AT&T Bell Laboratory's Flight Information System. How may I help you?

I would like to make a reservation please.

Please specify your travel plans.

I want to go from New York to Chicago on Saturday morning.

United Airlines Flight 3 leaves New York-La Guardia 10 a.m., arrives in Chicago-O'Hare at 11:18 a.m.

How much is the fare?

The round-trip coach fare is $479.

I will take the flight.

Your reservation on United Airlines Flight 3 to Chicago-O'Hare on Saturday is confirmed. Thank you.

Bell Labs is one of the leading research groups in natural- language computers. The leading edge in this technical advance is less than it sounds. For decades, people have predicted the development of speech-proficient computers.

The current systems are still crude. Bell Labs' airline-reservation system, for example, knows only 132 words. It is speaker-dependent, which means it can understand Bell Labs' David Roe. But it might not understand a foreign accent.

SRI International, the research group in Menlo Park, Calif., is probably two years away from a commercial product that could understand Japanese people saying English words. …