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Talk to the machine

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Many people in the financial services industry are uncomfortable with technology. The reasons for this are many and diverse. But one of the most common is they simply lack good keyboard skills. This need no longer be a problem.

Science fiction has long predicted a time when people would simply talk to computers. Now real progress is being made in this area. Nuance Communications is the world leader in voice recognition softwareand its Dragon Naturally Speaking application, version 11 of which has just been released, can bring massive productivity benefits to anyone who uses it. Typically it enables users to produce e-mails and letters in a third of the time that even experienced keyboard users would normally produce them. I have personally been using the product for some time now.

Recently they have turned their attention to release the voice recognition apps for the iPad and the iPhone. The software is remarkably easy to use. Having downloaded it from the App store - the app is called Dragon Dictation - you simply tap a red button and recording begins. A graphic display of the volume of your voice shows the application accepting your dictation. Having dictated a couple of lines of text you simply tap on the screen and the system shows that it is processing the data. During this time your voice file is actually transmitted to the Nuance’s servers which convert it into text and after a few moments this is returned as text in the window. If a word has transcribed incorrectly you simply tap on the word in your text, which produces alternative suggestions for the word or the option to delete it. A keyboard icon at the bottom of the screen gives you the option to bring up the standard iPhone/iPod keyboard to make manual corrections or editing.

Once you have constructed your message you tap on a transfer icon which gives you the option to cut or copy your text or send it to a new e-mail.

Personally I am hugely impressed by the performance of what is, after all, free software, although I have found it works much better when you have a good Wi-Fi signal. If you’re trying to use it with 3G and don’t have good signal strength this can be a problem.

As a long term user of the main Dragon Naturally Speaking software I have learned that an important discipline is to remember to use the software as often as possible. Even for the quickest e-mails, the reality is that you can almost certainly put on the headset and use the software quicker than you can type a mail. With the ease of use of the iPad/iPhone application this is even more the case. To put it simply, which can you do faster, talk or type?

Unlike the desktop product, where to get the best recognition it is advisable to dictate as long a passage of text as possible as the system recognises context and adapts output accordingly to improve recognition, because the iPhone/iPod version is working with remote servers, I have found it more effective to dictate a few sentences at a time. If you try and put too much text in a single dictation sequence the server may time out before returning it.

To set expectations realistically, we have not yet reached the stage where humans and computers can interact conversationally - using this app the computer cannot yet to talk back to you, although significant progress is also being made elsewhere with this type of software. Devices can already read back to you what you have said, using text to speech applications. Both in the working environment and for consumers, this technology has the ability to change the way we communicate.

It would be very easy to dismiss this application as just a new technology toy but the availability of free highly effective voice recognition software has massive potential for the retirement industry. If consumers are no longer constricted by a lack of keyboard skills, but can simply talk to their computers, this has the potential to enable millions of people, who might previously had been scared off by keyboards, to use technology to communicate with their advisers and pension providers. I believe there are enormous benefits for those organisations who grasp the opportunity this technology provides.

Presently the free application is only available for iPhone/iPad users, sadly users of Google Android Blackberry and other mobile systems will have to wait to be able to talk to their phones.

Just to prove how easy this package is to use, this article was dictated using Dragon with an iPad and just the built in microphone, in a hotel room in Edinburgh with no other special equipment. Anyone who has an iPhone or an iPad would be mad not to try this app - you will love it.

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