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Smartphones may soon listen in on you while they sleep

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Your smartphone may soon be able to hear and respond to you even when it's in sleep mode – that is, if the combined efforts of engineers at speech-recognition leader Nuance Communications and chipset makers succeed in their goal.

Nuance CTO Vlad Sejnoha told Technology Review that his company is collaborating with "a number of" chipmakers that are "thinking very actively" about how to pull off passive, sleepy-smartphone listening without inordinate battery drain.

The unnamed chip companies have certainly picked the right partner. Nuance dominates the speech-recognition software market, not only with apps such as Dragon Naturally Speaking for Windows and Dragon Dictate for Mac, but also by presumably providing the backend for Apple's much-maligned but reportedly (by Apple at least) now-improved Siri and the online-only voice recognition in OS X Mountain Lion.

Smartphones – both iPhones and Android-based handsets – can already respond to spoken queries and speech-to-text chores, of course, but Sejnoha wants to take the next step: having the phone respond without having to first be turned on. "Just turning on the device is part of the problem, right?", he rhetorically asked Technology Review. "So we're going to be smoothing that out, eliminating those problems as well."

Here at The Reg, we foresee a host of problems cropping up between Sejnoha and his vision. There are, of course, the engineering problems of how to create a listening system that uses a miniscule amount of power and how to filter voice out of background noise in usage situations less controlled than Dragon's rather stringent requirements.

More problematic, we believe, will be not only convincing users that it's a good thing to have their smartphones listening in on their every word, but also that those words aren't being used to develop personal profiles that could be of great value to marketeers and advertising targeters.

Your humble Reg reporter, for one, would find it intrusive if his smartphone, after having listened in on an earlier conversation about gołąbki or kluski śląskie recipes, might chime in unbidden with advertiser-supported Polish restaurant suggestions when the missus and he are discussing where to drop in for dinner.

Not to mention the phone intruding on some, shall we say, more personal moments when it's sitting on his nightstand. ®

Bootnote

A personal endorsement: if you had read anything with this reporter's byline in recent months, it was likely written using Dragon Dictate for Mac. After herniating a disk (between C7 and T1, for you spinal geeks) in – of all places – the Galápagos Islands in mid-April, he cranked out articles by speaking into a Blue Snowball attached to his trusty Mac until having recovered from surgery enough to again use a keyboard at the beginning of this month. Trusty, obedient beast, that Dragon.

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