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<   No. 2484   2009-11-14   >

Comic #2484

1 Iki Piki: So we still can't make computers reliably recognise voice commands?
2 Spanners: Nope.
3 Iki Piki: A dog can recognise voice commands! Why can't the product of over 400 years of computer technology do so?!
4 Spanners: Because there are now laws preventing us from wiring dogs' brains into computers.

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Now, I realise that voice recognition is an extremely difficult problem in computer science. I understand that it's highly non-trivial, and that many excellent and very intelligent people have put years and years and years of research into the topic for painstaking and hard-won theoretical and practical gains in the field, against seemingly insurmountable problems.


  1. Computer voice recognition still sucks so incredibly badly that it's essentially useless for most purposes for which you might conceivably want to utilise it.
  2. In many of the places where it is used, it's so actively bad that it's a well-known joke how inaccurate and stupidly annoying it is.
  3. Three-year-old kids can understand the human voice and, by the time they're five, they can do it with virtually no difficulties at all other than exposure to vocabulary.
I know it's a hard problem to tackle from a computer science point of view. But I can't help feeling that we are puny ants on the face of an edifice of such size and elegance that we can't discern the patterns for which we seek. That computer science is tackling the problem of voice recognition in completely and utterly the wrong way.

I'm not arrogant enough to assert that this is true, or that I have any better ideas. But it wouldn't surprise me in the least if some young gun came along next year and did something completely out of left field that nobody in the research landscape had even considered before, and it turns out to vastly simplify the problem to something that is actually tractable to our computers. And that it will leave all the experts in the voice recognition field scratching their heads and going, "Well that was obvious. Why didn't we think of doing that before?"

Or I could be completely deluded and 400 years from now we'll still be struggling to order our pizzas on automated voice recognition systems that can't tell the difference between "Phillip Street" and "no anchovies".

2023-09-16 Rerun commentary: Actually Apple's Siri voice recognition seems to have gotten a lot better in recent years. I now use Siri semi-regularly (a few times a month) to do things like send messages to people while I'm walking and don't want to stop to type it out on my phone. Mostly it works fine, although occasionally it gets a bird wrong.

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