David Zax

A View from David Zax

Meet Nuance's Nina

Voice recognition could permeate your entire smartphone.

  • August 7, 2012

Siri, for iOS, is already famous for allowing Apple device users to speak commands into their phone. But Siri’s functionality is currently limited; it’s not as though she can be used to operate every app on your phone.

Nuance, the company whose voice recognition software actually powers Siri, also seems to be positioning itself as something of a competitor to her (or perhaps, more accurately, as a teammate). Nuance is introducing a virtual personal assistant of its own that can live within any app, particularly corporate mobile apps. Nuance’s assistant is named Nina (since all digital personal assistants are apparently women with disyllabic names), and she sounds a whole lot like Siri. Here, take a look.

That’s pretty impressive. But what makes Nina most useful, in my opinion, is the way that she seems to have access to multiple apps at once. She can check your banking statement, pay your Comcast bill, and tell you the deductible on your mortgage all from within a single app? It’s a little unclear if this something Nina can do now, or whether it’s a vision of the future. AllThingsD went hands-on but appears to have only sampled a demonstration banking app. Currently USAA, the financial services company, is on board to use Nina, and there are hopes that plenty of other industries–travel, insurance, retail–will soon follow suit.

For the first time I begin to see a real appeal in a digital personal assistant, if it can essentially allow me to do all my banking and bills-paying while I’m walking somewhere in a hurry, say. My suspicion, though, is that it would still be faster for me to perform these operations on a laptop–unless Nina does indeed acquire the ability to toggle rapidly between apps and have a birds-eye view of all your finances at once.

I know what you’re thinking: is it really safe to cede such sensitive operations to a voice recognition app? What if someone swipes your phone and tells Nina to transfer all your funds to their bank account? Nuance is one step ahead of you. Their technology has advanced far enough to be able to identify the unique properties of your voice, per Gizmodo. When the folks at AllThingsD passed the banking app around the room, only the person who had initiated the app was able to give commands.

But hasn’t anyone at Nuance seen the movie “Sneakers”? For those who remember the 1992 flick, they know that all it takes is a few drinks with a crafty spy to unravel the tightest voice-based security. Fortunately, that scenario isn’t likely to befall many of us in the consumer market.

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