Voice Recognition’s Future: Hands-Free Siri Could Someday Be Possible

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A customer tries the Siri voice assistant function on an Apple iPhone 5.

Controlling your phone by voice is great, but it’d be even better if you could do it without ever laying hands on the device.

Nuance Communications, the maker of Dragon dictation software, is working on it, according to a story in MIT’s Technology Review. (Nuance is also believed to be the speech recognition backbone for Apple’s Siri, though it’s never been confirmed.)

The company is working with several chip makers on a persistent, low-power way to always listen for voice commands from the user. Vlad Sejnoha, Nuance’s chief technology officer, expects this capability to be ready within a year or two.

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The ability to talk to your phone without touching it has huge potential. On the most basic level, it’d be useful for performing basic tasks when your phone is out of reach, such as getting directions while driving. But as more of our phone’s functions–and the world’s knowledge–become tied into voice commands, we could get ever-closer to the Star Trek Computer concept that techies have dreamed of for years. Our phones won’t be phones anymore, but always-aware devices that do whatever we tell them to do.

Of course, there are some huge challenges that Nuance will have to deal with first. Accidental triggering of the voice assistant could be a problem–the butt-dialing of the 21st century, perhaps–unless the prompting phrase is weird enough to never come up in conversation. Security would also be a major issue without foolproof voice identification or some other way to keep the phone from spilling personal details to whoever asks for them.

Even if Nuance gets over those hurdles, there will be an inevitable privacy freakout at the thought of computers that always listen. Companies who implement the technology will need to assure users that it’s only listening for specific prompts before switching on completely. Even then, you can imagine people screaming “Big Brother!” at the very thought of it all.

But first, Nuance and chip makers will need to get over issues of battery drain, which is already a big headache on modern smartphones. If they can nail that, maybe everything else just falls into place, and we can move further into a world of sci-fi.

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