InfoShot: The history of voice technology

All the major voice tech milestones, from Bell Labs’ Audrey in 1952 to Alexa skills that monitor your network today.

The earliest computers used punch cards for data entry. The existence of typewriters has meant there have been computer keyboards almost as long as there have been computers. The original computer mouse was invented in 1964.

But what about voice technology? Today companies are falling over themselves to push their own voice-enabled digital assistants. But is voice recognition a new input method?


The history of voice technology

The 1950s and 60s saw a number of fictional AI computers appear in sci-fi novels, film, and TV: Mike the HOLMES IV system in Robert A. Heinlein’s novel The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress; Star Trek’s nameless ‘Computer’ on the small screen; and the malevolent HAL 9000  from the classic Stanley Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odyssey all showed the kind of human-like interaction people wanted from computers, even if the reality was still a long way off.

Though it might be surprising, the history of voice technology in actual reality also has its roots in the early 50s. The pioneering Bell Labs AUDREY system could recognize digits spoken by a single, pre-designated voice speaking very slowly and deliberately. According to one description, AUDREY ‘occupied a six-foot high relay rack, was expensive, consumed substantial power and exhibited the myriad maintenance problems associated with complex vacuum-tube circuitry.’

Although today its focus seems to be around Watson and Quantum computing, IBM was once a pioneer in the field of voice tech. At the 1962 Seattle World Fair, IBM’s Shoebox was able to understand 16 words – 10 of which were the digits 0-9, enabling it to solve basic arithmetic problems. Nine years later, Big Blue’s Automatic Call Identification system enabled engineers to talk to and receive “spoken” answers from a computer via a telephone line.

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