When man's word is machine's command

Updated 2017-07-24 15:09:09 chinadaily.com.cn

Shortly after reaching home from a long day's work, Ma Bin, 30, a software engineer in Beijing, walks into his flat's living room and, in Alibaba's "Open Sesame" style in One Thousand and One Nights, says to a remote controller on the sofa, "Let's Talk".

Presto, his internet-connected TV "hears" his command, switches itself on automatically in utter obedience and begins beaming Ma's favorite TV show magically.

After relaxing for a while watching the show, Ma heads out for a bite, settles in the driver's seat in his car and slips into the Alibaba mode again: "Lower the temperature to 19 degrees." The car's air conditioner obeys the Master instantly.

While still driving, hands very much on the wheel, he issues another oral command: "Recommend the nearest coffee shop." It's now the turn of the car's navigation system to obey the Master.

Welcome to the your-word-is-my-command age where devices use audio as input or medium for rendering services powered by AI (artificial intelligence).

Ask and you shall receive as it were. The consumer, it appears, never had a more powerful voice.

Ma accomplishes many everyday tasks by uttering instructions to voice-based digital assistants-he has quite a few of them-that control his devices and appliances.

For instance, his iPhone-based assistant Siri helps him book calendars and livestream music.

Rapid advances in speech recognition and language understanding technologies are making human voice the next major medium to communicate with computers, which are at the heart of almost all devices and appliances these days.

Devices are getting better at processing voice commands from across different rooms and against background noise.

No need to type on keyboards; no need to tap, swipe or draw on touch-screens; no need to press buttons, levers and such things. Do an Alibaba: just say, "Open Sesame".

Early converts like Ma are embracing the era of voice computing with gusto. "If I can control the surroundings simply by uttering a few words, why should I bother to touch screens or buttons?"

In China, conversation-savvy electronics are on the rise as local tech heavyweights vie for early lead in the next frontier of growth and innovation. The scene is not much different from the U.S. where Apple Inc, Microsoft Corp, Google, Facebook Inc and Amazon.com Inc are all battling for slices of the AI pie.

The trend will be further stoked by China's plan to build a 1 trillion yuan (7.9 billion) artificial intelligence industry by 2030. The plan was unveiled by the State Council on Thursday. Voice computing is an important part of that ambitious goal, which the private sector is determined to reach.

For instance, on July 5, e-commerce behemoth Alibaba Group Holding Ltd unveiled its Tmall Genie X1, its voice-driven digital speaker, which is modeled on Amazon.com Inc's Echo and Google's Home.

The same day, Baidu Inc, the Chinese internet search leader, showcased its Mandarin-speaking DuerOS personal assistant.

Such voice-based speakers can stream music, newscasts, so on, and can be improved to perform other tasks.

Toward that end, Baidu announced a new deal to acquire a startup specializing in the development of voice recognition technology.

Not to be left behind, Tencent Holdings Ltd, China's social networking and gaming titan, is developing its own voice-based speaker for launch within months.

Huawei Technologies Co Ltd, the world's third-largest smartphone manufacturer, jumped onto the voice-based technology bandwagon, hiring more than 100 researchers to work on developing a Siri-like assistant.

According to a Bloomberg report, more than 60 companies in China are working with U.S.-based Conexant Systems Inc, an audio technology player, to introduce voice-activated intelligent devices.

"Voice interaction, though still nascent, will be of utmost importance in future. In the internet-of-things era, most internet-connected devices won't have screens. Voice control will be the most convenient way to interact with them," said Liu Xingliang, president of the Data Center of China Internet, a Beijing-based market research company.

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