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CeBIT 99: Let German speak unto American

Our Graham awards top marks for remarkable L&H demo

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Hats off to Lernout & Hauspie for a remarkable CeBIT demo that combined speech recognition, machine translation, voice synthesis and intelligent agents. That's a lot of technology to run together in real time. Lernout & Haupsie demonstrated its Multilingual Chat by having an American and German speaker chatting together in their own languages to two PCs. The speech was recognised and instantly translated very acceptably, although it was being done with a pre-tested script no doubt. At one stage, a speaker asked what the weather was in Boston, and the audience immediately heard a spoken response from weather.com, which was listening in -- so to speak -- the response being through an intelligent agent. The speech recognition took considerably longer than the translation (which the audience heard through speech synthesis). L&H says it is improving the quality of the synthesized voice, but even so it was all most interesting, with many serious applications waiting in the wings. Although this was the first European showing of the product, it had been demonstrated at Demo 99 recently in the US, and at the launch of the Pentium III. There is no doubt that more horsepower would help -- it would be a good application for the Alpha. L&H is a Belgian company quoted on NASDAQ and EASDAQ, and headquartered at Wipers (or Ypres or Ieper depending on your preference). We asked Gaston Bastiaens, L&H's CEO, why Microsoft (which has a strategic alliance with L&H and invested $45 million in September 1997, and is about to take up options for a further $15 million, to give a seven per cent holding)was not pushing the L&H technology more actively. in view of the speech recognition with Corel WordPerfect (by Dragon) and the Lotus suite (derived from Dragon by IBM). He mentioned a couple of instances of Microsoft's use, but it was all pretty minor stuff. Reading between the lines, it seems that Microsoft is content to let matters ride. Microsoft poached IBM's guru in charge of such matters some years back. Then CTO Nathan Myhrvold said that his R&D group had signed off their work on speech recognition, but that work does not seem to have been a big deal. In a lively discussion after the meeting, it was suggested to us that Microsoft wanted to get 99.5 percent reliability before incorporating speech in Office, which seemed rather unlikely in view of the buggy nature of Windows 98. Another suggestion was that L&H did not want its products to be devalued by being bundled, which sounded much nearer the mark. ®

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