Soliloquy for a Computer's Ear

By Peterson, Ivars | Science News, December 7, 1985 | Go to article overview

Soliloquy for a Computer's Ear


Peterson, Ivars, Science News


"Too bee, oar knot two B." As written this phrase doesn't make any sense, but to human ears, its sound summons up the image of a melancholy, pensive Dane. A computer "listening" to such a speech, however, would have difficlulty deciding how to spell out Hamlet's question.

This is one of many problems that automatic speech recognition systems ought to be able to solve but usually stumble over (SN: 11/16/85, p. 313). So far, most such systems recognize only a few words, spoken one at a time, often make mistakes or take an unreasonably long time to translate an incoming acoustic signal into a suitable written form.

Recently Dragon Systems, Inc., a small research and development company in Newton, Mass., demonstrated a prototype system that may bring speech recognition closer to everyday use. "It's a significant departure from anything done before," says Janet M. Baker, Dragon Systems president.

What makes the Dragon technology remarkable is the large vocabulary that it can handle--about 2,000 words--with an average response time of less than a second. Yet, combined with a simple microphone and some electronics to convert teh analog acoustic signal into digits, the system runs on a personal computer unlike other experimental systems, which often include special electronic filters and other custom-built hardware, this system does all of its speech processing in the software.

Last year, IBM Corp. in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., was the first company to demonstrate a speech recognition system able to handle sentences composed from a large vocabulary. IBM's experimental system works with 5,000 words commonly used in business. In contrast to the Dragon system, however, the computations require computer equipment worth close to $1 million. With improved hardward, IBM is now developing a 20,000-word speech recognizer. …

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