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Bodies of noise at the Bell Laboratories : early automated speech recognition, contribution at the Editorial Workshop - A Special Issue on Acoustic Space, November 9-10, 2022, Frankfurt/Main
Eszter Polónyi, 2022, other performed works

Abstract: This paper is about the first automated systems developed to recognize identity. While automated recognition in the twenty-first century is widely associated with images of the human face, its roots are to be found in attempts to visualize identity in other, non-figural types of trace left by human bodies, ranging as widely as shadows, astrological signs, handwriting, the prints left by palms and fingers and the acoustics of the human voice. This paper investigates one such system of recognition as it emerged from within the telecommunications industry context in the midcentury U.S. Ostensibly built to reduce human labor and cable bandwidth, Bell Labs developed three different phone devices in the 1950s to photograph, formalize and analyze the sounds of speech as they traveled through the telephony system. And while the device called “Audrey” indeed succeeded in recognizing spoken digits, it was its failure to recognize the speech contents without prior awareness of the identity of the speaker, that is to distinguish between the individuality of the speaking “medium” and their intended meaning, that arguably made the experiment a landmark in the history of machine-driven recognition. Accounting for the “noise” made by the body and the environment from which sound emanated into the device, which the lab’s technicians defined as ranging from “speech defects” to “inflection” and “background interference” proved more important than phonetic analysis in determining the intended message of given speech spectogram. Similarly to a range of experiments with noise by formalist filmmakers such as Tony Conrad, John Cage, Kurt Kren and others, it was on the principle of contingency and irreproducible uniqueness that Bell Lab technicians sought to train machine-driven intelligence.
Keywords: History of computer science, machine learning, Bell Labs, history of telecommunications, sound studies
Published in RUNG: 19.02.2024; Views: 497; Downloads: 6
.pdf Full text (31,80 MB)

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