Say a command: The future of data is the spoken word, judging from Google and Autonomy

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According to the Hollywood version of the future, we will eventually interact with computers just by speaking to them. We’ve come a way from humble beginnings in voice recognition, when cinema information lines kept messing up Brighton and Birmingham, and now enjoy more sophisticated voice services.

But we are still far away from making robot friends. The next step towards the man-machine interactive future may well be that everything we say can be transcribed in an instant so we can search through it later. Or at least this seems to be the idea as far as Google’s concerned. The technology is here already for search through tricky non-structured data such as voice and video, meaning it may not even be necessary to transcribe our conversations for them to be searchable.

From data to sound
Google has made it clear it wants to be part of the mobile revolution, but with search technology being its bread and butter it makes sense to try and combine voice and search. Google Voice, the inter-computer calling software, is already here, and Google is making brisk progress with its online text translation application. Google offers automatic captioning of YouTube videos, done on the spot by machines, and the group has just launched a mobile app which will translate oral language – meaning the company has the technology to make sense of the murky science of spoken words.

So what’s the hold up on the Star Trek future, where we interact with our computers by speaking to them?

“Speech technology requires an enormous amount of data to feed our statistical models and lots of computing power to train our systems,” Mike Cohen, Google Speech Technology manager, wrote on the Google Blog. It’s about processing power, and ultimately money.

But Cohen is optimistic: “We envision a comprehensive interface for voice and text communication that defies all barriers of modality and language and makes information truly universally accessible.”

Master plan
While Google is pottering away at the big picture, there are other software companies already selling the technology that understands the meaning of raw audio and video data. Cambridge-based Autonomy is one of the biggest technology companies in the UK, doing brisk trade by providing software to businesses required by law to keep track of all their data to make it harder for anyone to conduct fraud.

The same technology can be used for other things as well, as proven by technology minnow Blinkx. The company uses Autonomy’s software to analyse things like online videos, and makes its money by pairing this with related ads. Because the software properly understands the videos shown, the ads can be closely tailored to become relevant to the viewer. Blinkx has a number of balls in the air in terms of collaborations with other companies, such as newspaper websites and TV-on-demand providers, so chances are we will be hearing more from Blinkx.

Takeover targets?
Because of its unique position and success record to date, Blinkx is frequently cited as a takeover target. Google has been mentioned as a possible buyer. While Autonomy remains the world’s undisputed leader in web content management (WCM) software, it is still smaller than the US tech giants and rumours keep circling here too. Some of these, notably Microsoft and Oracle, may be eyeing up the Cambridge nugget for a potential takeover.

Having cited a desire to remain independent, Autonomy will likely resist any such attention. It may even try and build its own empire – after all it has the best voice analysis technology on the market. The company is widely expected to go shopping this year, as it has yet to spend the £500 million it secured through a convertible bond fundraising last year. Analysts expect Autonomy to be looking for further deals in either the WCM or business intelligence space.

Autonomy has added interesting elements through takeovers in the past, specifically it added social media intelligence buy buying a company called Intervowen. At the time, others in the sector had very little to offer in terms of understanding the brave new world of user-generated content. So it’s not beyond the realms of imagination that more ground-breaking deals are on the cards, and Cambridge will strike again.

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