Monday, July 30, 2007

Catching up on the Dragon Systems founders

Jim and Janet Baker founded Dragon Systems back in 1982. The company produced Dragon Dictate, the first speech recognition system for PCs, and Dragon Naturally Speaking. They sold the company in 2000. They were among the first to use Hidden Markov Models to represent spoken language.

I read an interesting news item on Jim Baker recently. He's moving from Carnegie Mellon to Johns Hopkins University to work on a new research project for the Defense Department and the National Security Agency. The NSA wants to be able to conduct surveillance on millions of phone conversations, and today's speech recognition software isn't up to the task. Thus, they've funded one of the founders of the field to get speech recognition unstuck.

I'm conflicted about this. I admire Baker for the pioneering work he did on speech recognition. I understand that his initial research was funded by the DoD through ARPA, and much good came of that research eventually. Baker is good enough to be able to move the engineering of speech recognition forward. However, I don't trust the motives of the NSA, and if this is made to work properly we'll have on our hands another Big Brother-styled technology available to the government for eavesdropping on US citizens.

Maybe we'll get lucky. Maybe the funding will run out, the program will be seen as an expensive failure, and the NSA will say "so long and good luck." Then Baker will release some really groundbreaking research that will be of benefit to everyone working in speech. That's what I'd like think.

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