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Microsoft Chief Scientist of Speech Xuedong Huang says we're less than five years away from computers understanding us perfectly.


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Five years seems just around the corner.

As frustrated as you might get that voice-controlled tools like Apple Siri and Microsoft Cortana don't always understand you, it used to be a lot worse.

Earlier this year, Google announced it had gotten its speech recognition error rate down to 8%. 

But Microsoft Distinguihsed Engineer and Chief Scientist of Speech Xuedong Huang says that it's a vast improvement.

When Microsoft made its first-ever speech recognition technology available alongside Windows 95, a project Huang headed up, the error rate was "almost 100%," he says.

If you chart it out, Huang says, that means that on average, speech recognition has gotten 20% better every single year for the last twenty years. Which means that the end is in sight.

"In the next four to five years, computers will be as good as humans" at understanding the words that come out of your mouth, Huang says.

But for Huang, Microsoft, and the tech world in general, the end of this road is the beginning of the next phase: building real artificial intelligence. 

With "total parity" between human and computer understanding on the visible horizon, Huang says, it means that the world of speech science has a firmer foundation on which to work on giving computers actual artificial intelligence.

"To understand a word is easier than understanding the context," Huang says. 

But with tools like Microsoft Cortana, Google Now, Apple Siri, and Amazon Alexa, we have consumer-facing apps that are slowly but surely getting better at figuring out not only what you said — but also what you meant. It means that you can start to have more complex conversations with your gadgets.

This means that we're on the cusp of an "invisible revolution," Huang says, as speech becomes an accepted and useful interface for computers, and artificial intelligence becomes a reality.