When Google built the latest version of its Android mobile operating system, the web giant made some big changes to the way the OS interprets your voice commands.
It installed a voice recognition system based on what’s called a neural network — a computerized learning system that behaves much like the human brain.
For many users, says Vincent Vanhoucke, a Google research scientist who helped steer the effort, the results were dramatic. “It kind of came as a surprise that we could do so much better by just changing the model,” he says.
Vanhoucke says that the voice error rate with the new version of Android — known as Jelly Bean — is about 25 percent lower than previous versions of the software, and that this is making people more comfortable with voice commands. Today, he says, users tend to use more natural language when speaking to the phone. In other words, they act less like they’re talking to a robot. “It really is changing the way that people behave.”
It’s just one example of the way neural network algorithms are changing the way our technology works — and they way we use it. This field of study had cooled for many years, after spending the 1980s as one of the hottest areas of research, but now it’s back, with Microsoft and IBM joining Google in exploring some very real applications.