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21 July 2008  
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Home - Market - Article

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 areas—the Spoken Web

Guruduth Banavar

What is your mandate for this youngest of IBM’s eight labs?

We will continue to focus on real-world innovations enabling business transformation for our partners, business and society. In tune with IBM’s 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 Lab’s 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 IBM’s 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 IBM’s 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 IBM’s 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 IBM’s 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 IBM’s eight research labs.

The Spoken Web
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 worldwide—approximately 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 per year.

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.


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