Dreams of the Future

by Krishna on June 11, 2010

Robert Fortner reminds us that speech recognition is going nowhere:

The accuracy of computer speech recognition flat-lined in 2001, before reaching human levels. The funding plug was pulled, but no funeral, no text-to-speech eulogy followed. Words never meant very much to computers—which made them ten times more error-prone than humans. Humans expected that computer understanding of language would lead to artificially intelligent machines, inevitably and quickly. But the mispredicted words of speech recognition have rewritten that narrative. We just haven’t recognized it yet.

I think he is right about this. Speech recognition, despite increasingly powerful machines, has not come close to human accuracy levels. Beyond simple dictation and phone menus, I haven’t seen a worthwhile use of speech recognition. Having hit that wall, there is little chance of building a HAL 9000 or even a basic household robot to do your bidding.

Take a look at the science fiction books and movies from 40-50 years back. It is funny to see how wrong they were. According to those predictions, by now, we would all be traveling in spaceships and visits to the moon or Mars would be a common thing. Of course, they got some items backward too, like the huge bulky computers that covered the entire length of rooms. Too much imagination and too little at the same time.

There have been incredible advances, but many of them are so incremental that they are taken for granted. People mocked Apple for saying how “magical” the iPad was. But it and the iPad and the iPhone are truly magical when compared to what we had just 5 years ago. Powerful computers in your pocket, capable of all sorts of tasks and now even video phone conversations. Our expectations have become so high that the impossible fails to impress us. People are, in fact, outraged that the iPad didn’t have a camera!

Also, old habits die hard. Although genetics have changed what we buy at the supermarket, we still cook and eat them the same way. Our clothes, our houses, our cars, etc. do not look fundamentally different from those made 50 years ago. Yes, they are made from better materials, or bigger or more economic, but they haven’t changed a lot.

And while we have eliminated major problems (smallpox, polio), the ones that remain (cancer, Alzheimer’s) still threaten us. And while there have been advances (bullet trains, cheap air flights), they have been setbacks (Concorde, terrorism, higher fuel prices). The work that remains obscures the progress that has been made.

But even if we solve the new problems, there will be new challenges. For example, assume that bioengineering finally helps us cure all diseases known to man, and so unless you get hit by a bus or jump off a cliff, you will now live to be 200. Great! But what do you do then about retirement? Spending 10-15 years in retirement becomes 130 years. And that is just getting started with all kinds of social and political problems such as old age social security, overpopulation, etc.

The future is going to be an interesting ride!

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