Why decades-old discoveries are suddenly changing your life and electrifying the computing industry, and why they’ll soon transform corporate America.

Over the past four years, readers have doubtlessly noticed quantum leaps in the quality of a wide range of everyday technologies.

Most obviously, the speech-recognition functions on our smartphones work much better than they used to. When we use a voice command to call our spouses, we reach them now. We aren’t connected to Amtrak or an angry ex.

In fact, we are increasingly interacting with our computers by just talking to them, whether it’s Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, or the many voice-responsive features of Google. Chinese search giant Baidu says customers have tripled their use of its speech interfaces in the past 18 months.

Machine translation and other forms of language processing have also become far more convincing, with Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and Baidu unveiling new tricks every month. Google Translate now renders spoken sentences in one language into spoken sentences in another for 32 pairs of languages, while offering text translations for 103 tongues, including Cebuano, Igbo, and Zulu. Google’s Inbox app offers three ready-made replies for many incoming emails.

Then there are the advances in image recognition. The same four companies all have features that let you search or automatically organize collections of photos with no identifying tags. You can ask to be shown, say, all the ones that have dogs in them, or snow, or even something fairly abstract like hugs. The companies all have prototypes in the works that generate sentence-long descriptions for the photos in seconds.

Think about that. To gather up dog pictures, the app must identify anything from a Chihuahua to a German shepherd and not be tripped up if the pup is upside down or partially obscured, at the right of the frame or the left, in fog or snow, sun or shade. At the same time it needs to exclude wolves and cats. Using pixels alone. How is that possible?

The advances in image recognition extend far beyond cool social apps. Medical startups claim they’ll soon be able to use computers to read X-rays, MRIs, and CT scans more rapidly and accurately than radiologists, to diagnose cancer earlier and less invasively, and to accelerate the search for life-saving pharmaceuticals. Better image recognition

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