Arik Hesseldahl

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IBM Launches Network of 'Spoken Web' Sites In India

The conventional wisdom says that access to the Web is good for the poor because they get access to information that can help them improve their lot in life through education and finding jobs. But what good is a PC and a Web connection if you can’t read or write?

It’s a fundamental question that’s not often answered in western countries like the U.S. where most people can read and write, but a more common one in developing countries like India, where the literacy rate tends to be lower. In 2006 UNESCO pegged the average rate of literacy for people in India over the age of 15 at less than 63 percent. Meanwhile, only 7 percent of the population has access to the Web according to McKinsey & Co.

In certain areas of India there are construction jobs that go unfilled because the people who would normally qualify for them can’t find them, because they can’t read job ads. But they can speak and probably have a wireless phone. It’s a different kind of digital divide — the gap between information “haves” and “have-nots” — than what we usually talk about in the US, and researchers at IBM are trying to bridge it using a network of what it calls the Spoken Web.

IBM Researchers in India teamed up with the Karnataka Vocational Training and Skill Development Corporation, branch of India’s Department of Labor on a real-world trial of the Spoken Web. Using a combination of cloud computing, mobile phones and voice recognition technology, people looking for jobs will be able to call into so called “voice sites” — think Web sites that you navigate by voice over the phone — to search for jobs that match their skills.

“The whole idea is to apply some advanced technology to a problem that the government of India has been trying to solve: Help people get trained as well as get them matched up with job opportunities,” says Paul Bloom, IBM’s CTO of Telecom Research.

IBM created a new technology called HyperSpeech Transfer Protocol (HSTP) for navigating by voice. which is described in excruciating detail in this academic paper from 2007. (PDF). Initially the project will run in two districts, Mandya and Bijapur, and will be expanded further.

For now there’s no direct link between the voice sites in the project and conventional Web sites, but eventually there will be, Bloom told me. He also said there are lots of other possible applications for the Spoken Web technology including access to the Web for the disable, or people who are injured, or when driving a car.

The video below explains the project in more detail.

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Another gadget you don’t really need. Will not work once you get it home. New model out in 4 weeks. Battery life is too short to be of any use.

— From the fact sheet for a fake product entitled Useless Plasticbox 1.2 (an actual empty plastic box) placed in L.A.-area Best Buy stores by an artist called Plastic Jesus