Google speaks up on desktops and laptops

Larry Page, Google co-founder and CEO speaks during the opening keynote at the Google I/O developers conference at the Moscone Center on May 15, 2013 in San Francisco, Calif.

There's this dream techies have been chasing. That one day, our computes will speak to us, anticipate our needs and maybe even have  a personality. C3PO comes to mind. At Google i/o, the talking computer on "Star Trek" came up a few times.

Well, we’re still waiting for the dream of the computer as the ultimate personal assistant to become a reality. Tech companies are in hot pursuit of the dream. There’s Apple’s Siri. Amazon and Microsoft are also moving into voice technology. Your Xbox may be talking to you in the future.

And, today, at its big developers conference Google announced that Google Voice is moving beyond phones to desktops and laptops. I recently caught up with Scott Huffman, who leads the Google Voice team.

Sitting in a conference room at Google’s Mountain View headquarters, Huffman pulled out his Android and asked it this question. “How far is San Louis Obispo from here?” he asked.

 “The drive from your location to San Luis Obispo is 197.6 miles,” Google voice answered.

Voice recognition technology -- or simply transcribing the phonetics of the spoken word -- is commonplace. Call centers use it a lot. But tech companies are racing to actually “teach” computers to understand “language.” Remember, Huffman’s question: How far is San Louis Obispo from here?

He says the example shows how steep that learning curve is.

“I like this example because of the word here, such a simple word but if you actually think about it means a lot of different things,” Huffman said.

There’s “hear” – as in I can “hear” you. And then “here I am.” And here’s another example...

Getting a computer to understand the we speak naturally is sorta like teaching it to become human.  Huffman says it’s a long ways off. But he says, we’re getting closer. Computing keeps getting more powerful. Meanwhile, Google has a ton of on language and knowledge. The next jump is to turn that information into intelligence.

“We’re moving beyond search as we traditionally think of it of finding kind of documents to a broader assistant you can find information for you and can do things for you,” Huffman said.

In the meantime, there are other economic forces that are bigger than search, said Tony Costa, an analyst at Forrester.

“It’s about smart phones and tablets and this huge growing list of devices, such as smart tvs, our cars and wearable computers,” Costa said. 

He says unlike desktops computer, computers of the future don’t really lend themselves to the keyboard and mouse.

“And this really presents a problem for Apple and Google and Microsoft,” he said. “They’re all really trying to find ways to make this technology easy and efficient to use.”

If the trend to hook up everything we use to computers continues, than the company that masters voice could master, well, almost every part of our lives, says Michael Chui, who leads the tech research at McKinsey & Company.

“You want to be able to do naturally in your day-to-day life, you know, please turn on the TV or raise the temperature.”

Are you listening C3PO?

About the author

Queena Kim covers technology for Marketplace. She lives in the Bay Area.

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