For decades, computer scientists have been pursuing artificial intelligence (AI)—but in recent years, rapid progress has been made in machines that can listen, speak, see, reason, and learn, reports the New York Times. The AI technology that has moved furthest into the mainstream is computer understanding of what humans are saying. People increasingly talk to their cell phones to find things, instead of typing. Both Google’s and Microsoft’s search services now respond to voice commands. The number of American doctors using speech software to record and transcribe accounts of patient visits and treatments has more than tripled in the past three years, to 150,000. Meanwhile, translation software being tested by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is fast enough to keep up with some simple conversations. With some troops in Iraq, English is translated to Arabic and Arabic to English. But there is still a long way to go. When a soldier asked a civilian, “What are you transporting in your truck?” the Arabic reply was that the truck was “carrying tomatoes.” But the English translation became “pregnant tomatoes.” The speech software understood “carrying,” but not the context. Yet if far from perfect, speech recognition software is good enough to be useful in more ways all the time. Take call centers: Today, voice software enables many calls to be automated entirely. And more advanced systems can understand even a perplexed, rambling customer well enough to route the caller to someone trained in that product, saving time and frustration for the customer. They can detect anger in a caller’s voice and respond accordingly—usually by routing the call to a manager…

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Maya Prabhu


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