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dot life Monday, 11 June, 2001, 12:18 GMT 13:18 UK
Computers play catch-up
Handwriting montage BBC
Handwriting styles can be wildly different
The new battleground for computer firms is working out how to do what children manage to do with ease - read handwriting. BBC News Online technology correspondent Mark Ward reports

Admit it. You don't know what you are doing.

If you think about many of the things you do, such as reading, listening and speaking, you wouldn't be able to tell anyone else how to do them.

There's no internal checklist you could write out to make an instruction book for those learning to recognise letters, understand the sounds people make or converse. It is one of the many things that you just do. For most of us, reading, speaking and recognising are effortless.

Late learners

So why, if we find these things so easy that we don't consciously think about them, is it taking computers so long to catch up?

Palm site graffiti grab Palm
How users of the Palm OS can input text
We're told that chips double in power every 18 months and yet a seven-year-old child can outperform a Pentium when it comes to holding a conversation.

Why am I still using a keyboard rather than dictating this text? Why am I using notes written in shorthand in a separate notebook rather than on a smart tablet that converts them into quotes. Just what is so difficult?

There is no doubt that it is a tricky task to understand speech and handwriting. The history of technology is littered with failed attempts to make popular computers that can recognise handwriting and speech.

There are many things that computers can do that people cannot

Tony Robinson, SoftSound
Only last month, IBM released its TransNote computer that links a laptop with a smart paper pad. Any writing on the pad is captured digitally and transferred to the laptop where you can store and search it. Handwriting recognition is built in, but only works well after it has been trained to recognise the way you write.

Long before the TransNote was the ill-fated Apple Newton and the EO Personal Communicators that you could use with a stylus rather than a keyboard.

Even before that there was Microsoft's Pen Operating System and the Go Computer company. The whole field can be traced back to 1977 and Alan Kay's ideas for a handheld computer helper known as a Dynabook.

The fact that the vast majority of us are not using these gadgets and many of us have gone for a Palm type handheld that forces us to adapt to the machine's in-built shorthand rather than the other way around is testament to the difficulty of the task.

Reading writing

Janet and John PA
Janet & John: A searing drama for the under-fives
"One of the real difficulties with handwriting is simply the data you are working with is enormously variable," says Professor Michael Fairhurst from the University of Kent.

"Handwriting is very individual and the number of examples are almost infinite." Just think of the different ways you could write the letter "e" for instance.

Prof Fairhurst candidly admits that we are unlikely ever to produce a computer that can instantly read the handwriting of anyone. But, he points out, some terrible handwriting will fox even us smart humans who have years of experience to draw on.

He says: "In many questions like this you have to ask: 'If human beings cannot do better, then why should we expect machines to?'"

As Tony Robinson, technical director at speech recognition company SoftSound, says, when people compare the intellectual abilities of computers and people they tend to take a bit of a blinkered view.

"There are many things that computers can do that people cannot," he says. Computers have far better memories than people, can instantly recall facts and rank what they know in ways and at speeds impossible to all but a handful of humans.

For instance consider the time it takes to train a child and a desktop computer to play chess at the highest levels.

A child will probably have to spend years learning before it masters the game. With a computer the process is instantaneous, once the software has been installed that is.

Good listeners

Former US President George Bush AP
People had no problem reading his lips
Even those tasks we laud such as reading and speech took us puny humans a long time to learn. Most of us spent years babbling and making silly mistakes before we learned to speak properly, and it took only slightly less time to learn to read and write.

Computers are now very, very good at speech recognition and Mr Robinson speculates that most of us don't use it to communicate with our computers because we are used to using a mouse and a keyboard combination. "I can certainly type faster than I can dictate," he says.

It is likely that we will always have more than one way of interacting with our computers as voice control becomes more ubiquitous.

It makes no sense to say to a computer such things as: "Full stop, end line, new paragraph, indent," and so on, he says. Far better to have a keyboard or mouse that makes those things straightforward.

Anyone who has spent any time helping a child pick their way through a book realises that once upon a time reading was very much a conscious act that took a great deal of thought.

It is only us grown-ups who make it seem effortless. We've forgotten how hard it was.

Weely guide to getting buttoned up

See also:

25 Sep 98 | Health
25 Sep 00 | Science/Nature
13 Nov 00 | Science/Nature
24 Mar 01 | Entertainment
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