The U.S. patent office awarded IBM a record 3,411 patents last year, reaffirming the company's reputation as a technology innovator and ensuring a high number of billable hours for its intellectual property lawyers.
Not surprisingly, many of the patents build upon IBM's core competency in software, microelectronics, and computing technologies. One invention that I find particularly interesting is the sleep prevention dialog-based car system. Incorporating speech recognition and natural language processing technology, it's designed to keep sleepy drivers from nodding off at the wheel. The driver in our "Z Files" report (page 106) could have used it.
IBM researcher and co-inventor Dr. Wlodek Zadrozny explained to me that the system works by watching for telltale signs—drooping eyelids or a slight drool—indicating that a driver is about to conk out. It then launches into a predefined, yet spirited monologue, all the while carefully analyzing the driver's response. Slurs or mumbles trigger a wake-the-dead alarm.
Zadrozny says that humor may be a most effective conversational gambit, which makes sense because it's hard to laugh and snore at the same time. The system could be programmed to offer certain categories of jokes, such as chickens crossing roads or anything involving IT personnel. It also should be easy to re-engineer it to induce sleep. The steam tables recited by William Shatner playing Lord Kelvin would have a powerful narcotic effect.
IBM has a few technical hurdles to overcome before any of us can take advantage of this cool, sleep-deprivation technology—not the least of which is the enormous variation in human speech. To wit, Zadrozny says that IBM researchers studying bank-by-phone applications identified some 10,000 different dialogs that could be used to transfer money from savings to checking. I can only imagine the complications a bounced check involves!