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Google Patents Voice Search


Conversing with computers, long the preferred mode of interaction between man and machine in science fiction, just moved closer to reality. Google Inc. on Tuesday was granted a patent for a voice interface for search engines.

Then again, it might just be a pipedream. Google spokesperson Barry Schnitt issued this characteristically opaque comment on the company's plans: "Like many companies, we file patent applications on a variety of ideas that our employees may come up with. Some of those ideas later mature into real products or services, some don't. Prospective product announcements should not be inferred from our patent applications."

Filed over five years ago, the document at least confirms Google's longstanding commitment to extending its technology beyond the desktop to mobile devices, something seen in the company's recent series of mobile-oriented moves, such as its launch of mobile phone search ads in Japan last week.

So assume it's true that "there exists a need for a voice interface that is effective for search engines," as Google states in the patent filing. It follows then that Google, having developed such an interface, might just bring it to market.

"You can expect there will be more mobile search products coming out," says Dan Miller, an analyst with Opus Research Inc. "Speech as a mode for doing searches is getting more reliable." Miller suggests that Web search advertisers are salivating over the prospect of reaching hundreds of millions of prospective phone users.

That may be why both Google and Yahoo have a large number of people on staff working on speech-related issues. It's an area of such promise that both companies have engaged in aggressive recruiting.

Kai-Fu Lee, VP of engineering and president of Google China, used to work for Microsoft on speech technology. His defection to Google brought a lawsuit from Microsoft that played out during the latter half of 2005.

Last September, Nuance Communications, a speech and imaging technology company, sued Yahoo, alleging that the search company poached 13 engineers. That case has since been settled, but the terms weren't disclosed. "We don't confirm employee numbers in any context," Yahoo spokesperson Kiersten Hollars said in an E-mail.

The patent document suggests that Google will be leveraging its logs of stored text and audio queries to improve speech recognition and relevancy, as the company does currently with text keywords. It says, "The query logs may consist of audio data (i.e., a recorded query) and/or a textual transcription of the audio data. ...The query logs may also consist of typed query logs from, for example, a text-based search engine."

The existence of audio query logs will likely prove as tempting to the Department of Justice and other entities as text search data. But audio queries are likely to contain even more information than text queries in the form of background noise. Anything said in the area of someone speaking into his or her phone could potentially be recorded and stored with GPS coordinates and a time stamp.

It's arguable that such concerns border on paranoia. But as Google becomes the repository for ever more revealing data, tin foil hats don't seem so absurd, particularly given the recent accusations that AT&T has been diverting Internet traffic wholesale to the National Security Agency for data mining.


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