The international soldiers couldn’t afford to continue their painstaking, frustrating interview process one day longer. Every hour the weapons specialists and language experts spent sweating out crucial conversations with Bosnian war survivors, more innocent lives were put at risk by the yet-undetected, live land mines scattered dangerously close to civilian camps.
Their task: Question the men, women, and children injured by enemy land mines in order to detect and disarm the weapons as quickly as possible. Their problem: The necessary two-member interview teams were expensive, slow, and often unsuccessful. Their solution: An innovative speech recognition company from Newton, Massachusetts, called Dragon Systems, Inc.
An unlikely military partner, Dragon was founded by a dedicated statistician who had unlocked the door to computerized speech recognition a decade earlier. Dragon didn’t specialize in direct speech translation, and it certainly never before tailored a product for a war-ravaged society on the other side of the globe. Regardless, the assignment intrigued Dragon and its founders, James and Janet Baker. They accepted the challenge.
Within a matter of months, Dragon had developed a hand-held translation device equipped with a microphone, small display screen and speech recognition technology that instantly transformed English questions into Bosnian text. Armed with 10,000 possible questions and their translations, the tool allowed the Bosnian subjects to respond to soldiers with simple “yes” and “no” answers. Military manpower and timetables were significantly reduced. Lives were saved. And Dragon was recruited to create a similar device for use in Kosovo refugee camps.
“The Bakers are not your average blue suit and stripes business people — they are techies with good hearts,” says Dragon System’s Director of International Sales and Marketing Andreas Widmer. “We didn’t really make any money with this, but this is the right way to use the technology.”
Since its inception, Dragon has colored outside the lines. When founder James Baker first proposed his thesis for using mathematical models and processes to enable machine speech recognition, he was shunned by engineers and thinkers at IBM, Bell Labs, and elsewhere. They claimed artificial intelligence was necessary. Baker said Markov’s Model could be used to predict speech from statistical standpoint. And then he proved it.
One year after founding Dragon Systems, Inc., Baker unveiled a product that recognized 1,000 spoken words — ten times the number distinguished by the cynics’ systems. The following year, Dragon products could recognize 10,000 words. Needless to say, Baker felt vindicated.
During the subsequent decade, Dragon continued to introduce groundbreaking technology, all the while sticking close to four guiding principles and priorities: innovation, accuracy, usability, and efficiency — “Dragon is streamlining algorithms to fit on smaller and smaller chips so that one day you will be able to speak to your watch,” Widmer says.
“In 1997 we claimed the holy grail in speech recognition, and that was to have large vocabulary continuous speech products where the machine understands everything I’m saying and writes it down in real time,” he says. “The original predictions were that a product like this could not be invented until 2005.”
The applications of such a product in international business communities have been limitless. For example, Dragon has formed a partnership with New Hampshire’s Transparent Languages, which uses that speech recognition technology so that users can speak to their computers and watch a foreign language translation appear on the screen.
This function has proven particularly useful to professionals in the Far East. According to Widmer, clients in Japan and China are clamoring for a new Dragon product that will minimize tedious typing tasks in those countries.
“Being proficient in typing in Japanese is like being proficient in typesetting here in America because it’s incredibly difficult,” Widmer says. “Their characters slow them down tremendously. Speech recognition as a tool is much more useful to them than it is to anybody who has a phonetically written language.”
Similar products are proving useful for business people throughout the world who speak other languages effectively, yet struggle to interpret their words onto the written page. Already, Dragon has experienced a growth spurt in countries including Germany, France and Italy, where clients buy the English language product in order to translate their business correspondence.
And that’s just the beginning. Dragon has nearly 350 employees in the U.S., U.K., France, Belgium, and Germany just waiting to blow away the cynics all over again.
“Within the next three years, speech recognition will break out of its little square and have an impact in every single piece of the IT industry,” Widmer says. “There will be not one piece of software, not one machine, not one industry in the IT industry not effected by the impact of speech recognition. It will change the way we do computing.”
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