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EDITIONS
 Saturday, 21 December, 2002, 07:51 GMT
Voice holds the key
New York National Guard soldiers in front of the ruins of the World Trade Center
Emphasis on security after World Trade Center attacks
The days when your voice could replace your computer login and your home keys are not far off, as BBC World ClickOnline's Ian Hardy reports.
Speech recognition has always been something of a holy grail for the hi-tech industry.

For years the technology has promised much but it has failed to become part of everyday life.

But now the software is reflecting a changed climate where security is paramount.

Recent advances in speech technology have led to a whole new range of products with different aspirations.

Vocal key

Voice pattern authentication has become the current buzz phrase.

We have synthesis technology that is so human-like it's wonderful

Dr Judith Markowitz, voice biometrics expert
Manufacturers have changed their focus from individuals to corporations who demand reliable and secure systems, especially in a post September 11 environment.

"By using security systems that would authenticate using the unique biometric characteristics, like fingerprint or voiceprint, you can gain access to buildings thus physically securing things using just a telephone," said Mark Bannon of voice recognition firm, Phonetic Systems.

"You pick up a phone in the lobby, say who you are, authenticate using your voice and be buzzed into the building automatically."

Advances in computing have made using speech technology in this fashion possible.

"This is why we have synthesis technology that is so human-like it's wonderful," said voice biometrics expert, Dr Judith Markowitz.

"That's why we have verification where you don't have to say a specific password, where you can just talk."

Sound markers

Nuance is one of the leaders in voice pattern authentication.

Bunch of keys
Could your voice replace your keys?
Its system works by having a person speaks into a telephone handset, creating a voiceprint that is sent to a computer for verification.

It has to be a live voice as a tape recording of the voice will not actually replicate that person's voiceprint, making it a secure system.

The computer will compare the voiceprint to thousands of others in the database, looking for individual markers within the speech.

The computer is not thrown off very easily. The machine will not be confused if you switch languages halfway through a sentence.

When your voiceprint is found, you are allowed in.

Sensitive systems

Voiceprints can be used in an endless number of ways and can be combined with more traditional security measures.

The only challenge is that sometimes it won't recognise you because your voice has changed because of a cold or something

Stuart Patterson, Speechworks International
One day airplanes, trains and even cars could be fitted with voice authentication equipment that only allows authorised drivers to take control of the steering wheel.

There are some hurdles still to overcome.

"The likelihood that you could imitate my voice in order to get into my data is extraordinarily low," said Stuart Patterson of voice recognition firm, Speechworks International.

"The only challenge is that sometimes it won't recognise you because your voice has changed because of a cold or something.

"It's so sensitive that a small change like could be a difficulty. But then you always have a fall back that a normal person would ask you, like your mother's maiden name or your social security number."

It is possible that consumers might find their own voice now becoming more important than fingerprints, eye scans and PIN numbers in a world where terrorism and identity theft are becoming frequent events.

Suddenly the phrase, you are only as good as your own word, could take on a whole new meaning.

See also:

27 Aug 02 | Technology
20 Apr 02 | Science/Nature
31 Jan 01 | Science/Nature
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