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What Is Automatic Speech Recognition (ASR)?

Automatic Speech Recognition
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  • Defining Automatic Speech Recognition

    Automatic Speech Recognition (ASR) refers to a technology that allows humans to communicate with a computer interface using their voice in a manner similar to actual human conversations. ASR has evolved over the years, starting as basic systems that reacted to minimal sounds and then developing into highly advanced tools that understand natural language.

    Although ASR might seem like something from a far-off future, there are now many opportunities that entrepreneurs, developers, and other professionals can take advantage of. ASR is already being used to create beneficial outcomes today. Automatic Speech Recognition (ASR) is being used to power various services, ranging from automated customer service solutions and stock quotes to inquiry systems.

    According to Grand View Research, the global market size of the voice and recognition industry was worth 14.42 billion in 2021. The research firm projects that the space will record a CAGR of 15.3% from 2022 to 2030. This significant growth is primarily due to burgeoning technological advancements and an increasing trend toward the adoption of sophisticated electronic devices.

    Automatic Speech Recognition technology is a powerful tool that can transform an audio signal into written text. This ability to understand varying language accents and dialects makes it perfect for many applications ranging from live captioning to clinical note-taking and virtual agents. Accurate speech transcription is a critical component of these use cases to ensure accuracy and precision.

    Speech AI developers use different terms for speech recognition, including ASR (automatic speech recognition), voice recognition, and STT (speech-to-text). Whichever name is used as a reference, ASR is an indispensable piece for successfully integrating Artificial Intelligence into spoken discourse.

    By leveraging cutting-edge research in computer science, engineering, and linguistics, speech recognition technology has become a standard feature on many modern devices. This allows users to interact with their devices through voice commands or hands-free control – making them more efficient and user-friendly than ever.

    How Automatic Speech Recognition Works

    Speech recognition technology is a marvel of modern computing, allowing for the conversion of sound into written language. This complex process works in four main steps: analyzing, breaking apart, digitizing, and matching audio with the most suitable text representation using an algorithm. This way, spoken words can be transformed into computer-readable text that both machines and humans understand.

    To accurately decipher human speech, speech recognition software must be able to adapt to widely changing environments. The algorithms that analyze audio recordings into textual representations are trained on different vocal modulations such as accents, dialects, speaking styles, phrasings, and speech patterns. Additionally, the technology is designed with noise cancellation capabilities to distinguish spoken words from any distracting background sounds.

    Translating audio signals into data that a computer can comprehend, Automatic Speech Recognition (ASR) voice technologies often begin by employing an acoustic model. In the same way that a digital thermometer converts analog temperature readings to numbers, the acoustic model changes sound waves into binary code. Then, language and pronunciation models take over using computational linguistics to form words and sentences from each sound in context and sequence.

    However, recent advances in Automatic Speech Recognition voice technology are taking a new approach to this process, utilizing an end-to-end (E2E) neural network model rather than relying on multiple algorithms. End-to-end models have proven more accurate and effective, but hybrid models are still the most widely used in commercial ASR systems.

    The traditional hybrid approach

    For the past one and a half decades, speech recognition has been dominated by the traditional hybrid approach. Many still rely on this method due to the abundance of research and training data available in building robust models – it’s what is most familiar.

    With traditional Gaussian Mixture Models (GMM) and Hidden Markov Models (HMM), forced alignment of data is necessary. This process involves taking the text transcription of an audio speech segment and identifying when specific words occur in that segment. To accurately make predictions, a combination of acoustic models, language models, and lexicon models are used to compose the transcriptions.

    The acoustic model (AM) is responsible for recognizing the acoustic patterns of speech and forecasting which sound or phoneme is uttered at each consecutive segment based on the forced-aligned data. The AM typically has a GMM or HMM structure.

    The language model (LM) is designed to model the statistical patterns of language. It can be trained to understand which phrases and words are most likely spoken together, allowing it to accurately predict the probability of any given word following a set of current words.

    The lexicon model explains how words are enunciated phonetically. Typically, an individualized phoneme set is required for each language, designed by experienced phoneticians.

    While still widely used, the traditional hybrid approach to speech recognition has a few major drawbacks. Most notable is its lower accuracy rate. Furthermore, each model needs to be trained independently, which requires excessive time and labor. Forced aligned data is also hard to come by due to the significant amount of human labor involved in obtaining it. Moreover, expert knowledge is necessary to build custom phonetic sets to increase the accuracy of the models.

    The end-to-end Deep Learning approach

    The end-to-end deep learning approach in speech recognition involves using neural networks to model the input audio data directly, rather than relying on traditional speech processing techniques such as extracting features from the audio signal and then applying a separate model for recognition. This approach is often referred to as an “end-to-end” approach because a single neural network carries out the entire speech recognition process without needing intermediate steps.

    End-to-end deep learning systems for speech recognition typically have two main components: an encoder network that converts the raw audio signal into a high-level representation and a decoder network that generates the final transcription.

    One of the most common approaches is the “Connectionist Temporal Classification (CTC)” which allows the system to learn to align the input with the output.

    During training, the network is presented with pairs of audio recordings and their corresponding transcriptions and learns to map the audio signal to the transcription. Once trained, the network can be used to transcribe new audio recordings by processing them through the encoder network and then generating a transcription using the decoder network.

    End-to-end deep learning systems for speech recognition have been shown to achieve state-of-the-art performance on various benchmarks. They are increasingly being used in real-world applications such as voice assistants and automated call centers.

    Different Ways of Training Automatic Speech Recognition Systems

    There are many different ways to train automatic speech recognition (ASR) systems, each with advantages and disadvantages. They include:

    Supervised learning

    This is the most common approach to training Automatic Speech Recognition systems. It involves providing the system with a large amount of labeled training data, which consists of pairs of audio recordings and their corresponding transcriptions. The system learns to recognize speech by learning the relationship between the audio signal and the transcription. This method is highly accurate, but it requires a large amount of labeled data. The system may struggle to generalize to new audio if the training data is not representative of the test data.

    Weakly-supervised learning

    This is a hybrid approach that combines supervised and unsupervised learning. It still requires labeled data, but less than the fully supervised methods, and it also incorporates unlabeled data to improve the model’s generalization. This method can be more efficient than supervised learning as it doesn’t need the same amount of data and has similarly good performance.

    Transfer learning

    This approach takes advantage of pre-trained models. It allows fine-tuning the model on the new task with a smaller dataset. It is based on the idea that knowledge learned in one task can be used to improve performance in another.

    Multi-task learning

    This approach allows the model to learn multiple tasks at once. It leverages the information shared between them to improve the performance of the main task.

    It’s worth noting that the choice of training method will depend on the characteristics of the task and the available resources. Supervised learning methods are the most accurate but also the most data-intensive. Unsupervised and weakly-supervised learning methods require less data but may have lower performance. Transfer and Multi-task learning can improve performance without increasing the data needed.

    Key Examples of Automatic Speech Recognition Variants

    There are several different variants of automatic speech recognition (ASR) that are used in various applications. Here are a few examples:

    Isolated word recognition

    In this variant of Automatic Speech Recognition, the system is trained to recognize individual words or short phrases in isolation. It is often used in voice-controlled devices, such as smartphones and smart home devices, where the user speaks commands one at a time.

    Continuous speech recognition

    In this Automatic Speech Recognition variant, the system is trained to recognize speech in continuous, unbroken sentences. It is typically used in dictation systems, voice-controlled personal assistants, and transcription services.

    Speaker-independent recognition

    Here, the system is trained to recognize speech from any speaker, regardless of their characteristics. You’ll find it being used in public information systems, such as automated customer service or IVR systems, which must be accessible to many users.

    Speaker-dependent recognition

    With speaker-dependent recognition, the system is trained to recognize speech from a specific individual or group. It is often used in security systems, such as voice-activated locks or voice biometrics, where accurate identification of the speaker is essential.

    Language-independent recognition

    In this Automatic Speech Recognition variant, the system is trained to recognize speech across multiple languages, allowing it to switch between languages on the fly depending on the speaker. It is generally used in multilingual contexts or support centers where the system must understand different languages.

    Emotion recognition

    With emotion recognition, the system is trained to recognize the emotion expressed by a speaker’s voice. It’s used in customer service or virtual assistants that respond differently depending on the detected emotion.

    Implementation Tools for Deep Learning Models

    Several powerful platforms exist for creating deep learning speech recognition pipelines and models, such as Mozilla DeepSpeech, Kaldi, TAO Toolkit, Riva, and NeMo from NVIDIA. Additionally, various services from Microsoft, Google, and Amazon are available for this purpose.

    Mozilla DeepSpeech

    Mozilla DeepSpeech is an open-source deep learning-based speech recognition engine developed by Mozilla. It uses a deep neural network to recognize speech and is based on the popular Baidu Deep Speech 2 architecture. It’s a good choice for developers that want to add speech recognition to their application with minimal configuration.

    Kaldi

    Kaldi is an open-source toolkit for speech recognition developed by the Speech Research Group at the International Computer Science Institute. It includes a wide range of data preparation, feature extraction, model training, and decoding tools and is widely used in research and industry for speech recognition tasks. Kaldi is known for its flexibility and the quality of its decoding modules. It’s a good choice for advanced users that need to customize the pipeline or want to use the latest research findings.

    NVIDIA TAO Toolkit

    NVIDIA TAO Toolkit is an open-source toolkit for building and deploying conversational AI models. It provides a wide range of data preparation, feature extraction, model training, and deployment tools and is designed to work with NVIDIA GPUs. TAO is well-suited for large-scale deployment in data centers and cloud environments and provides robust and accurate performance.

    NVIDIA RIVA

    NVIDIA RIVA is a platform that enables developers to create AI applications with minimal coding. It includes pre-trained models and accelerates the development process. It also has a voice recognition module, providing a complete end-to-end solution for developers.

    NVIDIA NeMo

    NVIDIA NeMo is an open-source toolkit for building and deploying conversational AI models. It is designed to make it easy to train, optimize, and deploy deep learning models for speech recognition, natural language understanding, and text-to-speech. NeMo is designed to work with NVIDIA GPUs and is well-suited for large-scale deployment in data centers and cloud environments.

    Google, Amazon, and Microsoft all offer speech recognition services as part of their cloud computing platforms. These services provide easy-to-use APIs and are highly accurate, but they are not open-source.

    Components of an ASR Pipeline

    An automatic speech recognition (ASR) pipeline typically consists of several components, including:

    Acoustic feature extraction

    This component converts the raw audio signal into a set of features that can be used to represent the speech. It typically includes tasks such as pre-emphasis, framing, windowing, and feature computation. Examples of features are Mel-Frequency Cepstral Coefficients (MFCCs), Perceptual Linear Prediction (PLP) coefficients, and filter bank energies.

    Feature normalization

    This component normalizes the features extracted by the previous step to make them more robust to variations in recording conditions, such as noise and channel variations.

    Acoustic model

    This component maps the acoustic features to a sequence of phones or subwords. The acoustic model is typically implemented as a deep neural network (DNN) or a hidden Markov model (HMM) and is trained using a large amount of labeled speech data.

    Language model

    This component is responsible for generating a sequence of words that is likely to correspond to the speech. The language model is typically implemented as an n-gram model or a recurrent neural network (RNN) and is trained using a large amount of text data.

    Search decoder

    This component combines the output of the acoustic model and the language model to generate the final transcription of the speech. The search decoder is typically implemented using a variant of the Viterbi algorithm.

    Post-processing

    This component applies any additional processing to the output of the Automatic Speech Recognition pipeline, such as adding capitalization and punctuation. It’s also applied to improve performance in language model rescoring.

    Model evaluation

    This component is responsible for evaluating the performance of the trained model using a set of test data. This step measures accuracy and estimates the model’s performance on unseen data.

    Model inference

    This component uses the trained model to predict new, unseen data. It includes input preprocessing, model loading, and output post-processing.

    Deployment

    This component is responsible for packaging and deploying the trained model in a production environment, including the model’s use in applications, services, or devices that allow end-users to interact with the model.

    Key Applications of ASR

    Automatic speech recognition (ASR) technology has a wide range of applications. Some of the key applications include:

    • Voice assistants: Automatic Speech Recognition is used to enable voice control of devices such as smartphones, smart speakers, and home automation systems.
    • Speech-to-text: ASR is used to transcribe spoken words into written text, which can be used for tasks such as closed captioning, note-taking, and voice-to-text dictation.
    • Call centers and customer service: Automatic Speech Recognition is used to automate customer service interactions, such as handling basic customer inquiries and routing calls to the appropriate agent.
    • Navigation and GPS: ASR is used to provide spoken turn-by-turn directions and allows users to input destinations by voice.
    • Language translation: Automatic Speech Recognition is used to transcribe speech in one language and translate it into another in real time.
    • Language translation: ASR is used to transcribe speech in one language and translate it into another in real time.
    • Healthcare: ASR is being used in various healthcare settings for tasks such as note-taking, dictation, and patient monitoring.
    • Automotive industry: ASR is used in vehicles to enable hands-free control of entertainment systems and navigation and is also used in the development of self-driving cars.
    • Law enforcement and legal: ASR is used in law enforcement to transcribe and analyze recorded statements. In legal settings, it is used to transcribe court proceedings and other legal documents.
    • Media and entertainment: Automatic Speech Recognition is used in media and entertainment to transcribe audio and video content, such as podcasts and movies, for closed captioning, transcription, and subtitling.

    Challenges Facing ASR Today

    Automatic speech recognition (ASR) technology has made significant advancements in recent years, but there are still several challenges facing the field today:

    • Noise and background interference: Automatic Speech Recognition systems can have difficulty recognizing speech in noisy or reverberant environments, such as in public spaces or telephone lines.
    • Speaker variability: ASR systems can have difficulty recognizing speech from speakers with different accents, dialects, or speaking styles or with different genders, ages, and socio-economic statuses.
    • Vocabulary and grammar: ASR systems can have difficulty understanding and transcribing speech that contains rare or out-of-vocabulary words or uses complex grammar.
    • Limited resources: ASR systems are typically trained on large amounts of labeled data, but obtaining this data can be difficult, expensive, and time-consuming.
    • Limited generalizability: Some ASR systems are trained on specific types of speech, such as broadcast news, and may not generalize well to other kinds of speeches, such as conversational speech or spontaneous speech.
    • Data bias: ASR systems are often trained on large amounts of data, but the data may not be representative of the population it will be deployed on. This often leads to bias and poor performance when used on a different demographic than the one it was trained on.
    • Privacy and security: ASR systems can raise privacy and security concerns, as they can be used to transcribe and store private conversations or sensitive information.
    • Adversarial attacks: Deep learning-based ASR systems are vulnerable to malicious attacks, which can cause them to misunderstand speech or produce incorrect transcripts.
    • Real-time processing: ASR systems have to process speech in real time, and it’s challenging to balance the trade-off between performance, speed, and energy consumption.

    Despite these challenges, the field of Automatic Speech Recognition is rapidly evolving, with new techniques and technologies being developed to address these challenges and improve the accuracy and usability of ASR systems.

    The Future of ASR: The Opportunities 

    The field of automatic speech recognition (ASR) is rapidly evolving, and there are several exciting developments on the horizon:

    Improved robustness

    Researchers are developing Automatic Speech Recognition systems that are more robust to noise, interference, and speaker variability, using techniques such as transfer learning, data augmentation, and adaptive training.

    Multi-modal input

    Researchers are exploring the use of multi-modal input, such as combining speech with facial expressions, body language, or gestures, to improve the performance of Automatic Speech Recognition systems.

    Speech-to-speech translation

    Using techniques such as neural machine translation, researchers are developing systems that can translate speech from one language to another in real time.

    End-to-end models

    Researchers are developing end-to-end models that can transcribe speech directly without relying on intermediate representations such as phones or subwords, making the pipeline simpler and more efficient.

    Improved natural language understanding

    Researchers are also developing Automatic Speech Recognition systems that can understand speech in a conversation and provide appropriate responses using techniques such as natural language processing (NLP) and dialogue management.

    Edge-based and low-resource ASR

    With the proliferation of edge devices and the availability of low-power, low-cost processors, researchers are looking at ways to run Automatic Speech Recognition algorithms on-device without needing a connection to a cloud-based service. They also hope to develop models that work well with limited data and computational power resources.

    Low-latency ASR

    Real-time ASR with low latency will be a crucial aspect for some applications, such as live captioning, voice commands, and human-machine interaction, where there is a need for quick response.

    Conclusion

    Despite its difficulty and intricacies, Automatic Speech Recognition (ASR) technology is essentially focused on making it possible for computers to listen to humans. Getting machines to comprehend human speech has far-reaching implications in our modern lives. It is already transforming how we use computers today, and will continue to in the future.

    There are many exciting opportunities for innovation in this field. With the development of new techniques and technologies, we can expect to see a dramatic improvement in the accuracy and usability of Automatic Speech Recognition systems over the coming years. Ultimately, this will lead to better speech-understanding capabilities for machines and more natural interactions between humans and machines.

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