Speech recognition and Eastern equine encephalitis

I have a bone to pick with Nuance. I’ve several times seen Dragon NaturallySpeaking demonstrators wow people by saying a long phrase. “Eastern equine encephalitis” is a favorite. The implication is if computer speech recognition can get this difficult phrase right, it can get anything right.

The reality is just the opposite, and the demonstration gives people an incorrect mental map of how the speech engine works.

It’s important to have a good mental map of how something works. If your mental map is correct your instincts will be correct. If you’re working with a child you probably have an idea of the types of simple mistakes that child is going to make, and you’ll expect and have more patience for simple mistakes than when you’re working with an expert.

The NaturallySpeaking speech engine is different than either working with a child or an expert — it’s very good at some things, but not so good at others. The mix is different than it is with people. NaturallySpeaking is very good at identifying long words and even better at identifying common phrases — Eastern equine encephalitis is both and therefore very easy. It will rarely get this wrong. What’s more difficult for the engine is getting short utterances and uncommon phrases correct. If you give the speech engine more information to work with — a longer word, a phrase, or even the same word drawn out a bit, it has more information to work with and therefore does better.

A more impressive demo phrase for a speech engine would be “at up be”.

With the correct mental map of what’s easy and what’s difficult for the speech-recognition engine, you’ll instinctively speak in phrases and draw things out a bit if you see the engine start to make mistakes. This is probably different from how you tend to adjust to a person who isn’t hearing. In the case of a person a common instinct is to say one word at a time: “Eastern… equine… encephalitis”, which is more difficult for a speech engine.

The good news is a mental map works on instinct — if your mental map is correct, you often don’t even have to think about adjustments, they flow naturally. The bad news is a mental map works on instinct — if it’s incorrect your adjustments won’t work but it will feel like they should be working.

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