The quest to create technology that understands speech as well as a human

Not too long ago, the idea of creating tools that could understand speech as well as a human seemed more like the stuff of science fiction than computer science.

These days, a game console that understands voice commands, apps that can translate your conversation in real time and a virtual assistant that provides you with the numbers of nearby pizza places are all fact, not fiction.

These systems not only exist but are getting better every day, thanks to improvements in data availability, computing power and a subfield of artificial intelligence called machine learning, in which systems improve as they take in more data.

Within just a few years, some researchers now believe, these technologies could reach a point where computers can understand the words people are saying about as well as a person would.

“We are reaching that inflection point,” said Xuedong Huang, the company’s chief speech scientist.

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