Friday, July 26, 2013

Living a Science Fictional Life

There’s this trope of science fiction movies where the hero talks to his computer and gets a voice response in return. It’s usually just background flavor to show that, yes, what we are seeing is in The Future. More likely, it was too tedious to show the hero *typing*, so it’s much cooler to show him just talking to his gadget.

We’re still nowhere near the semi-sentient computers shown in the films, but we’re inching our way towards that. I’m stoked to think that I might actually see it in my lifetime. I may already be living in the science fictional universe I used to watch when I was a kid.

The realization came to me one time when I was composing a text message on my phone. I was getting exasperated. My pudgy fingers were missing the keys on the screen. Then I spied the small microphone icon, pressed it, and voila! I just dictated the rest of my message instead of typing.

I hit send, and that should have been the end, but then the very deed gave me pause. This was almost exactly what I’d seen my fictional sci-fi heroes do. And now I was doing it.

Like in the movies, this is becoming background flavor to ordinary life. My phone isn’t even top of the line (well, okay, it was when it came out two years ago), but it can take a dictation and transliterate it into text.

In case you’re wondering: I’m using a Samsung Galaxy SII, superseded last year by the S3, and this year by the S4. But this old thing is still able to run Google Voice, which does the work of turning my speech to text. Any Android phone or tablet should be able to do it, too.

It works the other way, too. Android devices have basic text-to-speech capabilities, so you can have your gadget read messages out loud to you. Instead of reading a book on my phone or tablet for instance, I have my device read it for me. It’s great for when I’m driving to work, or doing my chores.

(The built-in Google Text-to-Speech engine still sounds too mechanical, but a better and newer engine, IVONA, has diction that is very close to a real human being.)

Will we ever get to a point where the computer can actually understand your voice query and respond intelligently? In 2011, IBM’s Watson computer beat out two former champions of the game show Jeopardy! Watson, through a combination of natural language processing and a semantic database, showed how a computer could apply context to a query and come up with reasonable answers.

Watson is still too expensive for the consumer market...for now. That means that for the moment we’ll have to make do with Google searches. But as the technology improves, the costs will go down, and within a few years we’ll have capabilities close to what Watson already has.

And then we’ll really be talking with our computers.