NEW YORK - This is it. It's real. A decades-old doctoral dissertation hasgrown into an actual product supported by a fledgling company, which on thisearly autumn day is being unveiled in a windowless ballroom several storiesabove the cab-choked streets of Times Square.
The guys from Sonum Technologies Inc. are confident, but fidgety. Theystand in their booth at the conference, jackets on, feet spread apart, eyesscanning the moving mass of vendors and middle-managers - a legion in golfshirts and dark suits.
More than 100 other companies are set up all around them, bearing giveawayslike Frisbees and orange rubber balls. One company, uncertain of thepersuasive power of free candy and pens, has set up a beer tap. Tension andnoise run high as purveyors pitching products try to grab the attention ofpassers-by, especially anyone with a name tag that reads "Microsoft."
It's a make or break moment. Here - more than 200 miles from their Columbiahome office - Sonum's people will find out whether they are as good as theythink. The company, whose name is Latin for "sound," has spent the last yearand a half honing its technology, and is looking for confirmation that theearly results are the real deal.
They're not even certain anyone really wants what they could someday offer:Life in the computer age without a mouse or a keyboard.
A long romance
Human beings have long chased, or at least romanticized, the essence ofSonum's technology. Artificial intelligence - machines interacting andconversing with humans - has been glorified in science-fiction and popularculture for at least a half-century: the Jetsons' relationship with theirrobot maid in the 1960s cartoon series; K.I.T.T, the talkative Trans Am in thecampy 1980s television series Knight Rider; mechanical children like HaleyJoel Osment's character in the 2001 movie AI: Artificial Intelligence.
But reality hasn't yet come close to the fiction. Some machines can takedictation, but the programs are often unreliable and don't involve realcommunication or interaction. Others, like those associated withvoice-activated telephone menus, accept spoken commands, but are typicallydriven by a few key words. They don't understand the stammers and stalls,"uhms," "likes," and grammatical errors of everyday - or natural - speech.
And no one has been able to figure out how to make them do so - until now,Sonum contends. The algorithms and programming processes beneath its softwareaim to teach machines the human language: how to understand it, interpret itand respond appropriately.
Some outside experts maintain that this is an impossible goal. Others havetried to attain it, failed and given up, or at the very least shifteddirection. Today, Sonum's four-person full-time technical staff is competingwith researchers at major education institutions and technology businesseslike Microsoft, who are still working on the project. But most of theircompetitors no longer claim - as Sonum does - the goal of a type of artificialintelligence that would enable users to completely control computers throughspeech.
"Speech is the most natural form of interaction, but in some scenarios,it's just a lot simpler and easier to use a mouse and a keyboard," said JamesMastan, director of marketing for Microsoft Speech Technologies, a division ofthe software giant. "It makes more sense."
Still, Sonum's all-male company - made up on the creative side of a beardedcollege professor, a 34-year-old new father and two 20-something graduatestudents - swears its "natural language processor" is the one that will makethe difference.
During the next several months, The Sun will follow Sonum's infancy,chronicling the birth of a company. It is one of more than 1,000 technologycompanies created every year in Maryland. Nearly as many also die each year,because willpower and dreams aren't line items on balance sheets and can onlysustain a business for so long.
In 1981, Sonum's creator, W. Randolph "Randy" Ford, was finishing work on adoctorate in artificial intelligence at the Johns Hopkins University. He hadalready concurrently earned a bachelor's degree in applied psychology and amaster's degree in experimental psychology there.
At the time, few in the commercial realm had heard of the Internet. Only 1percent of households owned a personal computer, and the only mouse most knewof was the kind invading pantries. But the education world was embracingburgeoning technologies, and Ford was determined to help others wrap theirarms around computers.
The Ellicott City native, who graduated from Howard High School in 1968,had entered Hopkins intending to become a clinical psychologist. But he wasdrawn in another direction after he became entranced by statisticalcalculators, learning to manipulate the data and write number-crunchingprograms.
"I fell for computers out of the blue," said Ford, now 54 and living inMarriottsville.
At Hopkins, his newfound computer fascination and his interest in the humanmind germinated the mental seed for a startup company some 25 years later.
Part of Ford's inspiration came from Bert F. Green Jr., a professor in theuniversity's psychology department who is thought to be among the first towrite a computer program designed to interpret everyday language. Ford'sthesis adviser, Alphonse Chapanis, also had a major impact through his effortswithin and without the university, which led him to be known as "the father ofergonomics" - the science of making work machines and equipmentpeople-friendly. Chapanis, who died in 2002, championed the importance of thehuman side to computer interaction, which Ford took to heart.
"I got the roadmap for how to do something significant from them," Fordsaid. "It was no big light bulb, I took one and applied it to this and said,`That would be a good way to spend your life.'"
Bert Green's original program, written in the 1950s, used a very restricteddatabase: baseball scores. It allowed users to ask typed questions such as"How often did the Red Sox beat the Yankees" and get an answer. But it was acumbersome process that couldn't handle broad topics and didn't really solvethe problem. Green gave up writing programs after that first try.
"Computers had not yet developed to the point where you could interact withthem at all well," said Green, who retired from Hopkins in 1992 and lives inBaltimore. "It was too soon."
By the mid-1980s, Ford thought it was time for another try. He launched acompany based on his doctoral dissertation, which, like Green's project,focused on finding ways to make communicating with computers easier by makingthe typed commands more customary. Personal computers were taking hold - theyhad grown to 14 percent of households by 1985 - and he thought he couldfurther their adoption. But before he could get the company rolling, a newmachine hit the market and, he said, stole his thunder: the automated tellermachine.
"Bank machines taught everyone how to use a computer," Ford said. "Itbecame very familiar, and that essentially had the effect of taking everythingI'd ever done and putting it on a shelf."
His project was relegated to "intellectual hobby" status for two decades,while Ford worked as a commercial programmer. He would think about artificialintelligence from time to time, making mental notes of ways he could improvehis ideas, perhaps by adding a speech component. But public and private-sectorfailures in the field made him leery about trying to resurrect the project,and speech recognition programs - which can recognize and transcribe words, ifnot necessarily understand them - were still far too elementary andunreliable.
Then, about 1995, in his basement office, Ford read that Japanese engineerswere deploying an advanced process for speech recognition that might actuallywork. That energized him. It could be the breakthrough he was looking for, hethought.
"That put me in a watching mode for about two or three years," Ford said.By 1998, he began to devote more time to reviving his natural languageprocessor. He began looking for financial support in 2000, about the time healso took a position as a computer science professor at Hood College inFrederick.
"I was in the game again," Ford said. "I just didn't know it was going totake almost 20 years for everything to come into place."
Making machines listen
The idea behind most artificial intelligence is to take normal,conversational speech and translate it into machine speak behind the scenesthrough something called a "natural language processor."
Some methods try to do this by teaching computers to diagram sentences andlook for subjects and verbs to act upon. But they require immense processingpower, gobble up computer memory and struggle to comprehend flawed grammar.
Other techniques train computers to look for keywords and ignore the rest,including sentence structure. But to use them, people have to follow a scriptof commands that can be annoying to learn and execute.
Some businesses are already using interactive computer technology. Amtrakand UAL Corp.'s United Airlines, for example, have automated their telephoneinformation and reservations systems using software from a Boston company,ScanSoft Inc. The companies estimate they have saved $40 million or morecombined in labor costs.
Those processors work because they're limited to a "particular domain,"said Susan Feldman of International Data Corp., a technology research firm inMassachusetts. They only have to know a few words, such as "flight" and"departure."
Sonum's vision is much more encompassing. Its goal is to enable anything,even an entire operating system, to be run through natural speech.
The company's patent-pending processor, developed by Ford, is based on theway the human brain organizes information. It has been fed a huge vocabularyalong with ways to interpret phrases through repeated simplification andclassification. Words and their meanings are assigned numbered codes that thecomputer can understand and act upon.
For the New York conference six weeks ago, called SpeechTEK, Sonum appliedthe processor to a Microsoft Excel program for demonstration purposes.
"For Randy, I think that's just step number one so that he can move forwardand get his company established," said Judith Markowitz, a technologyconsultant in Chicago who met Ford three years ago through a colleague atNorthwestern University. The computer as "a true assistant, that's his goal,"she said.
And he's "considerably ahead of other people in the field," said WalterRolandi, a consultant for voice telephone systems and columnist for SpeechTechnology Magazine, which sponsored the New York conference. "The fact thatRandy Ford is a psychologist and looking at it as a psychologist helps. Heunderstands the functional nature of language."
Still, technology alone is not enough to sustain a business, and never was.If patents are an indication, tech ideas are created by the thousands everyyear, but most are never actualized because their inventors can't find backersor partners with business sense.
A half-dozen years ago, new technology companies were less worried aboutmaking it. With business plans scribbled on cocktail napkins, they sproutedlike mushrooms, fed by investors enthralled by the unknown, seemingly infinitepotential of the Internet and telecommunications. But after the technologyinvestment bubble burst, erasing up to $5 trillion in stock value on paper,developing companies have a tougher time allaying skeptics and raising money.
"[Early] investors ran as far and as fast away as they could," saidChristopher C. Foster, deputy secretary of the Maryland Department of Businessand Economic Development. "They're starting to come back, but I think you'regoing to see [early] investors become a lot more sophisticated."
Investors are returning, slowly, more warily. Venture capital funding inthe second quarter of this year was at its highest in two years, according toa survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers, Thomson Venture Economics and the NationalVenture Capital Association. More than $5.6 billion was invested in 761companies, many of them early stage businesses. Headlines about Google Inc.'srising stock and America Online Inc.'s $435 million purchase ofBaltimore-based Advertising.com also rekindled tech dreams.
Building a team
Sonum knows it needs good guidance to survive. The company already has aseven-person board of directors made up of mostly investors, and a managementteam that has the benefit of hindsight from technology businesses gone awry.
"I don't like to fail at things I start," said Andy Meister, 41, Sonum'schief operating officer. He was formerly a co-founder and vice president atAether Systems Inc., an Owings Mills company once described as the "Microsoftof wireless communications." For a time, it was the hottest new company in theregion, but it eventually shriveled and exited technology entirely.
When Meister came on board, the Sonum team was still in a research anddevelopment phase, liable to take on a "deer in the headlights" glaze whenbusiness questions were posed, he said. But they believed fervently in theirtechnology. "It reminded me a lot of the early days at Aether," Meister said.
The company was based in the basement of the house of its chief executiveofficer, Matthew B. Hitt. A 49-year-old Towson accountant, Hitt was the firstmember of Sonum's management team and the first investor - hence also aco-founder. He had been looking for a business to invest in and was smitten bySonum's ideas. He persuaded a longtime friend, Harry E. Pollock III, to joinas president.
"It's an awful lot of fun learning the business and new things. I just hopeall of this stuff will come to fruition," said Pollock, 55, a former chiefexecutive officer and president of the Barton-Gillet Company, a marketingcommunications firm in Baltimore. He now works in sales and financial printingat RR Donnelley's Baltimore offices.
New companies often pull their staffs from friends, families or co-workers.At Sonum, the technical team is led by Ford, who brought on two of hisstudents and one of their friends.
"I left a job where I was getting benefits to go here," said David Gurzick,26, the company's director of software engineering. He met Ford while earninghis master's degree in computer science at Hood College. "He convinced me thatthis is the future."
After Meister arrived, things started happening fairly quickly. In January,the company set up in rented space in an office building in a Columbiabusiness park, using funds from the $1 million Hitt had cobbled together infinancing from "friends and family." The group started shopping theirprocessor, showing it to consultants and pitching it to possible clients. Butthey were getting minimal feedback.
To reach a wider audience, they produced a demonstration video and headedto New York for the conference. They stocked a booth there with literature,informational DVDs and a $500 rented flat screen monitor for the video, inwhich Gurzick's wife - an emergency room nurse who was talked into being theimpromptu star - repeatedly told an Excel program what to do.
Sipping from a coffee cup and looking relaxed - not at all as if she hadonly four hours sleep after a hospital shift - Martha Gurzick spoke into amicrophone and led the computer through the paces: opening a new spreadsheet,entering figures, tabulating results. She didn't have to type or click on athing.
With so many others around them, it was tough to draw attention to theirbooth on the outskirts of the room, away from the prime center area realestate where Microsoft and IBM had set up. And Sonum only had Hershey Kissesto offer as enticement. Still, for those who saw it, the video was hard toignore.
"I really don't know how much application it has, but it really hasimpressed me," said Ann Winn, a programmer for Dragon Systems, which createsvoice recognition software. She was one of a few people who stopped by theSonum booth on the first day of the conference, though most didn't haveanything to offer the company other than well wishes and congratulations.
All around the room, brochures promised "conversational speech solutions"and "human-like user experience." But no other company was pitching avoice-computer technology as ambitious as Sonum's. At least that was thereport back after a tour around the ballroom by the technical staff: Gurzick,who bubbles with optimism; Doug MacLean, his slightly more cynicalcounterpart; and Mark Newman, a 24-year-old math whiz. McLean, 34, was thesecond software engineer hired by Ford. Newman, another student of his, cameon as the third in July.
"Within this universe, we know where we stand," said a satisfied Hitt."We're a step above anybody."
Back home in Maryland, Sonum went to work with renewed vigor, laying plansfor the future, which include another round of financing this fall to enablemore hires and contract negotiations with a Seattle company - their potentialfirst buyer. For now, the group is happy and optimistic about the future.
"Truth is, I'm having so much fun. I get to be scientifically creativeevery day," Ford said. "It's like being at Hopkins all over again."
What Ford doesn't know, is that he and his co-workers are about to find outsomething that has nothing to do with machines: That is, the value of theirindividual roles after one member is unexpectedly hospitalized for weeks,fighting for his life.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times