When cartoonist Garry Trudeau made fun of the handwriting-recognition software in Apple's Newton PDA in 1993, he highlighted a problem that continues to bedevil programmers: making software that grasps the full range of human expression.
Perhaps no company knows this better than Google, which has spent the past decade trying to refine its ability to understand its users from a few, often ambiguous, keywords entered into its search box.
Google is learning that lesson again with the release of the new version of Google Mobile App for the iPhone, which now allows users to speak queries into their phones and receive text search results based on Google's interpretation of what was said.
Users posting on the Google Mobile Blog have complained that Google's app doesn't understand some British accents, a claim that isn't entirely surprising given the use of English subtitles on certain television shows imported from the United Kingdom to the United States.
"This is fantastic, except for the North American accent bias," wrote someone who identified himself as Edward Parsons. "It actually works pretty well, but I have to disguise my (North London) accent with a terrible folksy Texan tourist voice to get results. I can see this is going to be the source of much amusement and confusion if I continue with the app..."
"Awesome job, Google," wrote someone posting under the name Kevin. "Only problem is every time I say the word 'fish' it registers as 'sex.' "
Google clearly anticipated this issue. The blog post announcing the software says, "Note that voice search will be enabled by default for U.S. English users only." But that's cold comfort to Google's fans across the pond, many of whom are enabling voice search regardless through the application's Settings menu.
The acoustic modeling for Google Mobile App came from GOOG-411, Google's dial-up voice information system, which is only available in the United States and Canada. Until Google trains its speech-recognition technology to understand a wider range of English, U.K. users of Google Mobile App might be best advised to ditch the Queen's English for Google's.