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Microsoft talks up next-generation speech engine

By now, most of us have picked up one of the many touch-screen phones available on the market. Some of the luckier ones may even have a tablet, slate or an iPad. Yes, touch has gone from an uncomfortable and slow way to connect with our consumer devices, to being a fun and easy way to do everyday tasks on those devices. Yet when you put on your VHS/LaserDisc/DVD/Blu-ray copy of 2001: A Space Odyssey, it’s not touch that stands out in the imagined future – instead, it’s speech.

"Look Dave, I can see you're really upset about this. I honestly think you ought to sit down calmly,
take a stress pill, and think things over."

Microsoft is no stranger to speech technology. In 1999, Microsoft purchased the speech-toolkit form Entropic, and then spent $1 billion acquiring TellMe in 2007. Today, Microsoft builds speech technology into its Windows line of products, develops automotive products that feature speech, and offers speech technology as part of its corporate product line-up.

At yesterday’s SpeechTEK conference, Microsoft officials talked a little about the company’s future in speech. Mary Jo Foley over at ZDNET reports that Larry Heck, Microsoft’s Chief Speech Scientist, discussed the three drivers behind Microsoft’s speech ventures: “data and relevant machine-learning algorithms”, “cloud-computing platforms” and, of course, “search”. Microsoft is working on natural language for computers, but so far has found that “entry points”, such as search engines, are not currently designed for conversational input – instead they’re designed to search for relevant terms based on a few keywords.

Heck told attendees to “stay tuned” for products with “advanced conversational expression and understanding” technology in the next few years. With Xbox Kinect and Windows Phone 7 both featuring Microsoft’s speech technologies, will we get a peek into the future of speech technology sooner than we think? Are you excited about the possibility of systems like 2001’s HAL 9000 (without the homicidal tendencies), or even Star Trek’s LCARS, existing sometime soon?

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