The research arm of France Telecom has designed an 'intelligent agent' system that it claims allows users to converse naturally with computer servers for the first time.
The French telco said the technology opens up the possibility of providing access in everyday language to a variety of interactive services and multimedia applications.
"For the first time ever it is now possible to carry on an intelligent interactive conversation in a variety of everyday languages with a whole host of applications," said the company.
The system pools together research from fields such as artificial intelligence, human-machine interaction and user-service interfacing to create the kind of technology used in the computer HAL from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey.
As an example of the potential of the technology, France Telecom is linking up with the bank Societe Generale to run a fully functional trial of an online brokerage service in the first half of next year. Several hundred users will be able to access a dedicated server, using everyday language, to place complex buy or sell orders, receive real-time stock quotes or verify their transactions.
The technology is being tested with a number of other applications, such as internet search engines, as a way to provide an interface that can enhance the relationship between a user and a service.
France Telecom believes the technology will eventually find applications in ecommerce, such as use by hotel room reservation systems and virtual travel agencies.
Peter Crowcombe, of analyst Infonetics Research, said voice recognition technology is one of the ways to open up ecommerce to people who do not have access to a computer and keyboard. Most voice recognition technology in use is simply an input tool but extending its scope will be challenging, he added.
"Under controlled conditions you can get voice recognition technology to work pretty well," said Crowcombe. "The problem is that as an application gets more critical, people are less inclined to trust it - you hit an acceptance hurdle."
The system uses a rational interactive interface between the user and the server. This makes it possible to consult databases either verbally, in writing or by using a multimedia interface. Alternative solutions, such as other search paths and similar responses, can be automatically proposed by the system when it is unable to fulfil an original request.
It can also process searches in 'off-line' mode and inform a user by telephone or email of the results.
France Telecom could not confirm which languages the system would recognise.
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