Talking technology is becoming ubiquitous -- and maybe even useful

  • Article by: KATIE HUMPHREY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 15, 2014 - 6:01 PM

Voice-activated devices are evolving from glitch-ridden novelties into useful tools, but quality conversation with your computer isn't likely anytime soon.

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Photo: Paul Carbo, Special to the Star Tribune

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It’s the stuff of science fiction.

The crew of the Starship Enterprise talks to the replicator in “Star Trek.” Joaquin Phoenix’s character falls for his chatty operating system, Samantha, in “Her.”

But what we’ve seen on the screen is looking more like reality. Talk to your smartphone, Google Glass, even the thermostat — and they talk back.

“It’s actually happening,” said Greg Sullivan, a director of product marketing for Windows Phone at Microsoft. “It’s only very recently that it’s really becoming real.”

The gadgets around us are going beyond understanding simple commands and taking part in conversation, albeit one that’s often stilted and programmed.

Ask “How are you, Siri?”

“Excellent!” the iPhone digital assistant will respond.

Talking technology is shifting from novel to useful, and its likely that everything from washing machines to driverless cars will be commanded by voice rather than buttons.

Yet as science fiction becomes fact, human users continue to struggle with robo-conversations. It can be awkward talking to a machine and so much can get lost in translation.

Plus, the more a machine talks smart, the more we expect it to actually be smart.

Complex chatter

Nina Hale talks to her devices all the time. She tells her Google Glass to navigate home and often dictates texts and e-mails to her smartphone. To her, it’s just easier than typing. Still, it feels weird.

“I feel quite shy doing it in front of people,” said Hale, CEO of Minneapolis-based digital marketing agency Nina Hale Inc. “I’m always kind of turning my back.”

Talking to technology isn’t just embarrassing. Most of the programs are dogged by glitches, as well.

Anyone who’s tried dictating a text knows the perils: the microphone picks up background noise, homonyms cause trouble, and tough-to-pronounce names are a lost cause. As someone who works in search engine marketing, however, Hale’s invested in learning how computers process language.

Researchers have been exploring those same topics since the 1950s, said Prof. Ray Mooney, director of the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at the University of Texas.

“Really understanding language is hard,” he said. “The human mind evolved over millions of years. It’s hard for us as engineers to reconstruct it in a matter of decades.”

Progress has been incremental, said Mooney, but most of us are finally starting to notice it because the hardware — especially those little smartphone computers in our pockets — are powerful enough to do speech recognition and more natural language processing.

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