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Listening skills – How talking to your computers can give you a competitive edge

Posted by Michael Strawson on

In the not too distant past speech recognition technology was a thing of science fiction, but voice-powered working has come on leaps and bounds in recent years and can substantially improve productivity.

Although voice recognition software has been used successfully for decades in some industries – with its early development pioneered by Bell and IBM in the mid-twentieth century, before taking off in the 1970s, accuracy remained an issue for a long time. Until that is 2008, when Google paired existing technology to the billions of search data points it owns, and had these power a voice app for Apple’s iPhone.

Since then voice-powered software has rapidly become more and more sophisticated, using this extensive web data, as well as the context of when and how a user says something, to make highly reliable ‘guesses’ about what it’s being asked to understand.

With the advent of services like Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana, voice-powered working is finally hitting the mainstream. Google Translate even allows you to speak in one language and hear your words translated back to you in another in response. Stepping up from that, Skype Translator – Microsoft again – translates live video calls between users in seven different languages.

Speech recognition can make a more productive workplace

This software has obvious applications for helping overcome language barriers, or making web searches, but how can it be applied to the workplace? The real opportunity for many businesses lies in workflow solutions. It’s already powering the documentation systems of many hospitals, GP surgeries and legal offices and is ripe for speeding up administration in businesses.

Speech-to-text applications came into their own in the 90’s, spearheaded by leading specialist Dragon, creator of Natural Language Technology, which allowed users to speak with more informal language and to dictate continuously rather than leave gaps between words.

Dragon’s heritage and technology coupled with the recent swelling of datasets has opened up a potentially groundbreaking opportunity in workplace productivity.

Any business where employees have to record their words and actions, fill in forms, create reports or work fast through their email can improve productivity and reduce costs by replacing typing with talking. And it doesn’t matter if you have a noisy office. This technology even works in busy classrooms.

Accessibility is another obvious area where speech recognition can have a major benefit, not only recording and converting speech but also possessing the ability to read it back. It can enable blind and partially sighted users, those with motor control difficulties, or those with dyslexia to complete tasks more quickly than they’d otherwise be able to, or even fill roles that they could be well suited to but would not be able to do without the support of the technology.

Voice recognition can also prove invaluable in environments where someone might need to use both hands for a task, such as in an operating theatre or whilst presenting or even while surveying a building.  Billions of days are lost a year due to sickness caused by overuse of keyboards. Even the NHS recommends it as a way to avoid musculoskeletal disorders.

There are less obvious business applications too – perhaps only less obvious because people are not used to thinking about the technology in this way. How long will it be before most estate agencies are using speech recognition to get a new property straight on the market after reviewing it and agreeing an instruction? Or most financial services advice centres are using speech recognition to convert recorded calls straight to text and having this automatically indexed as part of their digital workflows?

Standalone speech recognition software is powerful, but taking full advantage of it requires designing a process tailored to your business’ workflow.

The applications are limited only by our imaginations. We’ve reached the stage where our voices can be used as reliably for most of the everyday tasks we use a mouse and keyboard for. It’s now not the technology that’s holding us back from being more efficient in many areas of work, but our own unnatural habits.

Three tips for getting the most out of speech recognition (written using speech recognition software)

1. Get the best person for the job – Speech recognition can open up a wider workforce to you by enabling those with motor control or sight difficulties to fill roles they otherwise could not.
2. Hands free – For jobs that involve using both hands, speech recognition can prove invaluable, enabling you to simultaneously take notes recording important information, whilst concentrating on your primary task.
3. Deal with data and admin– If you’re operating in an environment that’s heavy on admin or where lots of data needs to be recorded before being transcribed, a voice-driven workflow allows you to automate much of the process.

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