Cellphones could be used to build 'audio internet'

There is an interesting article in the New Scientist magazine about an "audio Internet" for those people who can't read or write. Many libraries have an subscription or electronic access to this journal.

ON A cold winter's day in December 2006, Guruduth Banavar's team gathered up some workers at a bustling marketplace in New Delhi, India, and cajoled them, each in turn, into a car.

The team was from the IBM India Research Laboratory (IRL) in New Dehli. They had come to the market to test an alternative to the internet for India's rural population. The system is based on the cellphone, though, and so the din of hawkers selling vegetables, and shoppers looking for everything from jewellery to electronics, made conversation impossible.

Once inside the car, however, 10 of the 12 volunteers - who had never before interacted with a speaking computer - were able to create their own voice-based website, or VoiceSite, in just under 4 minutes apiece. The first trial of the "spoken web" was a success.

The spoken web is an attempt to bring the power of the internet to rural India. Despite India's highly touted knowledge economy, around 70 per cent of its billion-strong population lives outside its cities, and most of them earn just $4 per day or less. And even for those who can afford computers, attempting to access the internet remains a futile exercise, either because they cannot read or write or the information on the web is simply not relevant to them.

The answer, says Tapan Parikh of the University of California, Berkeley, is speech. "An audio format would provide much more access and opportunity for local people to contribute," he says. "While a farmer may not be able to write a memo, or an email, or a summary of his work, he can easily talk about it."

Go with the audio flow. If the spoken web is to become a true internet on your cellphone, users will need to be able to "surf" easily through different sites.

So a team at the IBM India Research Laboratory in New Dehli is working on a simple audio browser to make this possible. The browser is a special VoiceSite that maintains a directory of all other VoiceSites and is the first number that the user calls. As the user moves through the spoken web, the browser creates a record of their path. This represents their browsing history, which allows the system to respond to requests like "go back" or "go forward". This history is only stored for the duration of the call.

A permanent record is kept of the user's bookmarks. At any time during the interaction with the spoken web, the user can say "bookmark", which will add the site to their database.

Making the spoken web as easy to browse as the internet will be challenging, though, as audio is much harder to scan, search and index than text. "Since audio information is laid out in time, it is difficult to quickly find relevant information or scan over a document, or pieces of content," says Tapan Parikh of the University of California, Berkeley. With some technical advances, it should be possible, he says.

Read more about it in issue 2679 of New Scientist magazine, 24 October 2008, pages 22-23

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