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Summary:

Look out Nuance. there’s a new speech recognition player in town, AT&T. Ma Bell has taken the locks off of its Watson speech application programming interfaces, allowing any developer to use them to add voice commands and natural language understanding to their apps.

voice recognition

Look out Nuance Communications, there’s a new speech recognition player in town. Nuance can’t simply buy up this potential competitor as it has in the past since this company happens to be AT&T. Ma Bell has taken the locks off of its Watson speech application programming interfaces (APIs), allowing any developer to access them.

AT&T promised in April to open Watson up to general development, but on Monday AT&T SVP for technology and network operations John Donovan made the launch official in a blog post, revealing seven different “contexts,” or language libraries, that app builders can access to speechify their products.

Like Nuance, AT&T has developed specific taxonomies for specific use cases, allowing its servers to anticipate the words and phrasing consumers are likely to speak in a particular context. Those tailored lexicons allow Watson (not to be confused with IBM’s artificial intelligence project Watson) to better capture meaning as well as intent from any given phrase. For instance, the question “where is Trenton?” would be interpreted completely differently if spoken to a Q&A app versus a mapping app.

The contexts are Web Search, Business Search, Voicemail-to-Text transcription, SMS speech transcription, Question and Answer, TV and a category called Generic used for general dictation purposes. The TV context is of particular note because it ties into AT&T’s U-Verse program guide, recognizing queries about particular actors, movies and TV shows.

In general, though, it appears AT&T is only licensing out fairly basic speech recognition and natural language understanding to general developers – features that could be used to build voice search into an app, but nothing that could be used to develop an expansive virtual assistant like Siri.

Watson, however, is likely much more powerful than these contexts let on. Vlingo licenses Watson’s core speech technology for its language servers (though that relationship will likely end after the Nuance acquisition closes), and Research in Motion’s QNX is working with Watson’s API to develop a conceptual connected car assistant. AT&T also has big plans to leverage Watson’s capabilities for its own products. In a recent interview, AT&T emerging devices president Glenn Lurie hinted that Watson could soon make it into its Digital Life connected home technology, becoming the voice-controlled virtual butler we see in science fiction.

Watson does have one big advantage to the average dev: it’s cheap – at least until the end of the year. For the remainder of 2012, AT&T will give free and unlimited access to the Watson APIs to any developer paying AT&T’s $99 annual registration dues. In 2013 a point-based fee structure will kick in. Registered developers will get 5000 points a month and any speech transaction of a minute or less will cost one point. Developers that exceed that amount will be charged $20 for each 2000-point increment, which works out to about 1 cent per transaction.

Image courtesy Flickr user Lazurite.

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  1. TheMacAdvocate Monday, July 9, 2012

    AT&T better watch its back – Nuance has been known to be particularly nasty litigants when it comes to speech technology.

    1. I would love to see an insect like Nuance start a fight with a juggernaut like AT&T. I bet AT&T’s legal budget is bigger than Nuance’s entire yearly revenue. The only thing more stupid than starting a fight with AT&T would be starting one with Apple…

      1. Kevin Fitchard guest Tuesday, July 10, 2012

        Hi MacAdovcate, guest,

        Well if there is one thing AT&T has in spades it’s lawyers :)

        It has a pretty impressive patent portfolio of its own going back 100 years….

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