Telstra plans natural language engines

Telstra will start selling enterprise grade, home grown ‘natural language’ speech recognition engines directly into the Australian market over the next two years, according to its chief technology officer Dr Hugh Bradlow. Technical details so far are scant, but the technology will use user-voice executed commands combined with artificial intelligence systems to deliver services and transactions.

Delivering a technologist’s perspective of the Australian ICT future to the National Press Club in Canberra on Monday, Bradlow said he believes that Australian enterprises with large customer bases will be looking for interactive voice technology that can recognise both phrases and context to deliver further savings.

"I’m very confident that if [enterprises] aren’t already looking at this sort of technology they will be over the next year or two as cost pressures build," Bradlow said, citing the example of a customer being able to purchase multiple movie tickets at a specific time and place using nothing but voice commands -- except for the credit card number which should not be uttered publicly for security reasons.

Bradlow claims that speech recognition will also become "immensely powerful" as technologies able to "recognise natural discourse" are integrated with systems that are aware and enabled with individual customer or user "contexts" -- such as products or services. Bradlow says that to date the Telstra Research Lab has also developed a commercially available software project called Lyrebird, although development costs are still commercial in confidence.

Noting that around half of the Australian population was Internet enabled, Bradlow said that Telstra will now spend the next five to 10 years addressing "human usability issues" surrounding interactive services and products, adding that "the consumer experience is what is limiting uptake".

Asked when Telstra’s notorious automated directory assistance service would start to function without perpetual human assistance, Bradlow said that the service had suffered from a "user education problem" and that the technology was only ever intended to cater for about "three hundred" key phrases.

Bradlow did not mince words defending Telstra’s broadband performance. "I dispute that we are falling behind. It has taken Australia over a hundred years to achieve carrier-grade telephony network… there is no silver bullet," he said, adding that the current mix of cable, ADSL, ISDN and satellite was appropriate for a geographically dispersed population.

While new interactive enterprise systems got the thumbs-up as the way of the future, Telstra’s CTO refused point-blank to throw his support behind audio-based biometrics as mainstream technology: "People can [over]hear passwords. [Then] you have to balance all the false positives and false negatives. You can put biometrics in place and then people will come along and break it. It will be a while before we can rely on biometrics as a consumer technology."

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Julian Bajkowski

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