The Muse

Ray Kurzweil on sounds of the future

Entrepreneur Ray Kurzweil has already fledged four start-ups and is hatching four more. Among his inventions are the first text-to-speech synthesizer and the first print-to-speech reading machine for the blind. The author of The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence, Kurzweil was the recipient of the 1999 National Medal of Technology -- the nation's top prize in technology, awarded by the president -- for his computer-science achievements. Inc. Technology reporter Jill Hecht Maxwell asked the futurist author to lend his powers of prognostication to the coming marriage of computers and the human voice.

Inc.: Where will voice technologies take us in the next 10 years or so?

Kurzweil: What we're going to see over the next few years is speech recognition combining with other technologies. An interesting combo is the translating telephone. I speak into it in English, and software converts my voice to text. Another program translates the text into German, and a synthesizer converts the German text to voice for the person on the other end. Within a couple of years, you'll see this capability emerging for routine business conversations.

That's just one example, though. By 2009, the primary interface we use to interact with computers will be voice. Computers as we know them will disappear -- they'll all be so tiny that they'll be embedded in our clothing, eyeglasses, and contact lenses, and there won't be room for a keypad. Speech is a very natural way for us to communicate, and we want to interact with machines the way we interact with one another.

Inc.: What are the impediments to achieving this voice-driven future?

Kurzweil: We need exponential growth in computing power. We're getting that. Overcoming the ambiguity of human language is a major challenge. There are so many ways to say things, and we don't always speak perfectly accurately, in smooth, well-structured sentences. Given the number of complaints people have about humans who answer the phone, computer systems don't have to be perfect. But they do have to achieve pretty high levels of satisfaction.

Inc.: So what does all this mean for small-business owners?

Kurzweil: One trend I think we'll see is the whole concept of a virtual personality. Within a few years, having a virtual personality on your company Web site will be a standard interface. A virtual host or hostess will guide your users to the resources and content on your site. A visitor will type or speak a request -- "Tell me about your model number 123" -- and a virtual salesclerk will respond by speaking: "It's our latest unit. It has these features. And it's on special this week." We'll be able to interact with computers through two-way, humanlike conversations.

When people call your company, instead of wading through several layers of voice menus, they'll say "Give me the personnel department," and virtual phone attendants will handle the routing. We're already beginning to see the early versions of that with the airlines -- you can ask about cities and times of day, and the system understands you.

By the end of this decade, business meetings will routinely take place in virtual reality. Talking on the phone is a limited kind of virtual reality with one sense -- hearing. But we'll have 3-D, full-immersion virtual reality, where we'll be able to pick a shared environment -- an office, a cafÉ on the Champs-ElysÉes, a Mozambique game reserve -- and meet as if we were meeting in person. Communication is what business is all about, and virtual reality will change the bulk of business communication -- and a lot of interpersonal communication as well, particularly when you add the tactile sense. But that's another story.

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