30 Minute Interview
Spoken Web: a voice-based vision of the Internet
Guruduth Banavar, Director of IBM India Research Laboratory
(IRL) talked to Varun Aggarwal about IRL and one of its key research
areasthe Spoken Web
What is your mandate for this youngest of IBMs eight
We will continue to focus on real-world innovations enabling business transformation
for our partners, business and society. In tune with IBMs entire R&D
effort, we will continue to focus on the creation and patenting of new technologies
as well as on the innovative application of those technologies, especially innovations
in the areas of services delivery and telecom.
What are the Labs core focus areas?
Researchers at this Lab have a deep passion for developing globally relevant
innovations that make a positive difference to business and society. The current
focus areas within IBMs India Research Laboratory include services delivery
research, telecommunications research, industry solutions, information and knowledge
management, systems management, distributed and high performance computing,
software engineering, and analytics and optimization.
How does IRL enhance IBMs global research agenda?
Research is a crucial element and a key differentiator for IBM as the innovation
partner in the marketplace. As technologies, markets and social conventions
have evolved over years, IBM research has adjusted its methods for stimulating
innovation. This has strengthened its high-end collaborative work processes,
which is significant since isolation inhibits innovation. Today, through sustained
innovations, the Lab continues to grow IBMs interests in the region. Many
of our technologies have made their way into major products and solutions from
the company and are on the threshold of making a major difference to our services
organizations. In India, our lab is busy in both innovating and applying those
innovations for real customer benefits.
How are IBMs initiative on services, science, management
and engineering likely to impact industry?
Services now account for about 75% of the labor force in the India, US and the
UK. Unfortunately, this shift to focusing on services has created a huge skills
gap, especially in the area of high value services. In this context, IBM started
working with top universities to develop a new academic discipline for a services-led
economy called Services Science, Management and Engineering (SSME). This is
a new academic discipline and research area aimed at studying, improving and
teaching services innovation. It is the application and integration of scientific,
management and engineering disciplines to tasks that one organization beneficially
performs for and with another (that is, services). IBM India Research
Lab is working closely with top schools such as IIM-B, ISB, IISc, IITs, FMS,
NID etc., to lead the SSME initiative in India. The objective is to engage academic
researchers, business managers, industry chieftains and policy makers in a debate
on vital issues in services and to evolve an SSME ecosystem in India.
What differentiates IRL from other IBM Labs?
Our main differentiators are our rich talent pool and a unique culture of innovation
that permit the cross-pollination of ideas from a wide array of scientific disciplines
and understanding of end-users of technology as true collaborators amongst others.
IBM Research produces more breakthroughs than any company in the industry. There
are more than 3,000 scientists working in close collaboration across the IBMs
eight research labs.
|The IBM Mobile Web Initiative projects, which will
be led out of India, but are also being incubated in multiple labs in six
countries, include projects such as the Spoken Web project,
which aims to transform how people create, build and interact with e-commerce
sites on the World Wide Web using the spoken instead of the written word.
The Spoken Web is the World Wide Web in a telecom network, where people
can host and browse VoiceSites, traverse VoiceLinks,
even conduct business transactions, all just by talking over the existing
telephone network. For example, an average person on the street does not
need a PC, but needs access to information: farmers need to look up commodity
prices; fishermen need weather forecasts before they head out to sea; plumbers
can schedule appointments, set up transfers to partners, use advertisements;
and grocery shops can display catalogs, offer order placement, display personalized
targeted advertisements or reminders. Such locally relevant information
is not available for a majority of the world's population. Computer literacy
is not enough for most of the population because there is a need to know
what to look for, how to access it and how to use it. The really new thing
about the Spoken Web is that almost anyone can create a site on the Spoken
Web, using a voice interface, and we believe that this will enable the creation
of significant new content.
Researchers at IBM India Research Laboratory have
been developing the Spoken Web for the past couple of years. They have
been inspired by the increasing number of Internet users worldwideapproximately
a billion and the number of telephone users worldwide which is about 3.4
billion. While Internet penetration in developing countries is still below
10%; even in the USA 30% of people do not have access to the Internet.
Mobile penetration has been increasing rapidly and voice is a compelling
interface for a semi-literate and non-IT savvy population. Connectivity
costs in developing regions have reduced, but a PC still costs about Rs.
10,000 ($220). 56% of the people in developing countries live below $700
The key challenge has been in understanding what these
people really need, what are their expectations from technology, what
kind of user interfaces might work for them. Another challenge was: What
platform do we use? It cannot be the $100 PC, which is hard for them to
use; besides, the Internet penetration is pretty low. However, the number
of cell phones in India has already crossed 200 Million, and is growing
at 7.5 million a month. The next question was: What interface? Since many
of them cannot read or write, voice was a natural option. Hence, the Spoken
Web. How can we enable people to create locally-relevant content? The
answer is in our new technology that helps people create voice sites using
a spoken interface.