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If Microsoft has anything to say about it, we will eventually live in homes straight out of an episode of The Jetsons. The research group envisions a home where the kitchen counter displays a menu that helps you prepare dinner and the refrigerator adds items to your shopping list as you remove them. It may sound like science fiction, but it is not as far away as you think.
In fact Microsoft hopes to release many products known as smart personal objects. These are everyday items customized for the individual user and able to deliver specific information. Wristwatches, alarm clocks, and key chains are all examples.
The first of these products, a smart watch, is already available for purchase from MSN Direct. The watch currently allows you to access sports, weather, news, and stock quotes. Of course, if the trend catches on (as seemly quite likely), it may soon be possible to deliver even more customized functionality via a user's wrist.
The smart watch is just one example of how the world is becoming more mobile and of the need for better software to interface with this new world. Another is Xnav, a Prototype device that allows the user to navigate an application using one-handed touch access. This would be useful not just for busy people, but for the blind and the handicapped.
This section features projects at Microsoft Research (research.microsoft.com) that if not yet ready are expected to make their way into products within the near future. The MSR motto is "Turning ideas into reality." The group comprises dozens of subgroups, with each working on multiple projects (see Table 9.2). Many of the technical advances seen in current Microsoft products originated from this group.
Speech is a major initiative for Microsoft. It is part of a larger concept referred to as the Natural User Interface, or Natural UI, which involves creating natural and expressive interactions with the user. This is primarily accomplished using speech-processing capabilities but can also involve natural language and machine learning. The Natural UI is intended to ease interaction with smart devices not merely devices like PDA's and Tablet PC's, but devices loaded in your car, Internet television, and screen phones.
Kai-Fu Lee is the corporate vice president of the Natural Interactive Services Division of Microsoft. He recently gave a presentation in which he stated:
The Speech group hopes to improve human-to-computer interaction by giving computers the ability to recognize spoken words and even to understand their meaning. Of course, this is the tricky part. The group's researcher are hard at work trying to improve speech recognition, grammar understanding, and text to speech using several different methods.
One way speech recognition can be improved is through the ability to detect emotion in speech. This is a technique that could be very useful for speech applications that interface with customers. The software will be able to respond appropriately if it can recognize the speaker's emotion.
The work from this group was the basis for the Speech Application Programming Interface (SAPI) and also for the newly released Microsoft Speech Server. In fact, some of the researchers from this group are now working in the Speech Platforms Group, which is responsible for the Microsoft Speech Server product.
Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with James Mastan, director of marketing for the Speech Platforms Group. The profile box titled "The Future of Speech at Microsoft" contains excerpts from that conversation.
One of the group's first prototypes was the MiPad, which stands for multimodal interactive notepad. This device, which was first demonstrated in 2000, combines speech-recognition technology with pen input. The user can choose to use either method when accessing e-mail, schedules, or contact information. Work in this area was the basis for multimodal application development with Speech Server.
Created by the Adaptive Systems and Interaction team at Microsoft Research, the Notification Platform project is based around the idea of an intelligent agent. The technology is already the basis for some of the .NET platform and should be part of other upcoming products. Someday the intelligent capabilities of this platform may even be made available to developers through an API.
One of the reasons the field of AI has had such a slow start is that there are so many things humans do that seem to be innate and do not follow the standard rules of logic. On the opposite side, there are many things that computers can do that humans find difficult. For instance, computers are sometimes better than humans at calculating large figures and at remembering things accurately. Computers, moreover, do not suffer from the same limitations as humans. For instance, computers do not have to eat or sleep.
The Notification Platform takes advantage of the things that computers can do better than humans. It consists of programs that assist users in their daily activities. For instance, one program, named Priorities, is used to assign priorities to e-mails and determine which ones the user wants to see. It uses a neural network to help it learn from the user and know which priorities to assign.
The MindNet project involves building semantic networks in order to extract meaning from large amounts of data. This knowledgebase project has been utilized as a data repository by the Machine Translation project.
This project is based on machine learning and is used internally at Microsoft to process the company's huge quantities of technical documents. Documents that would take a human months to process can be processed by the Machine Translation project in a single night. The data-driven project parses sentences and assigns them to categories that are later associated. The technology has already been used in the Microsoft Word 97 grammar checker and the natural-language query function of the Microsoft Encarta 98 Encyclopedia.
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