NEW YORK - This is it. It's real. A decades-old doctoral dissertation has grown into an actual product supported by a fledgling company, which on this early autumn day is being unveiled in a windowless ballroom several stories above the cab-choked streets of Times Square.
The guys from Sonum Technologies Inc. are confident, but fidgety. They stand in their booth at the conference, jackets on, feet spread apart, eyes scanning the moving mass of vendors and middle-managers - a legion in golf shirts and dark suits.
More than 100 other companies are set up all around them, bearing giveaways like Frisbees and orange rubber balls. One company, uncertain of the persuasive power of free candy and pens, has set up a beer tap. Tension and noise run high as purveyors pitching products try to grab the attention of passers-by, especially anyone with a name tag that reads "Microsoft."
It's a make or break moment. Here - more than 200 miles from their Columbia home office - Sonum's people will find out whether they are as good as they think. The company, whose name is Latin for "sound," has spent the last year and a half honing its technology, and is looking for confirmation that the early 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 of Sonum's technology. Artificial intelligence - machines interacting and conversing with humans - has been glorified in science-fiction and popular culture for at least a half-century: the Jetsons' relationship with their robot maid in the 1960s cartoon series; K.I.T.T, the talkative Trans Am in the campy 1980s television series Knight Rider; mechanical children like Haley Joel Osment's character in the 2001 movie AI: Artificial Intelligence.
But reality hasn't yet come close to the fiction. Some machines can take dictation, but the programs are often unreliable and don't involve real communication or interaction. Others, like those associated with voice-activated telephone menus, accept spoken commands, but are typically driven 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 software aim to teach machines the human language: how to understand it, interpret it and respond appropriately.
Some outside experts maintain that this is an impossible goal. Others have tried to attain it, failed and given up, or at the very least shifted direction. Today, Sonum's four-person full-time technical staff is competing with researchers at major education institutions and technology businesses like Microsoft, who are still working on the project. But most of their competitors no longer claim - as Sonum does - the goal of a type of artificial intelligence that would enable users to completely control computers through speech.
"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 James Mastan, director of marketing for Microsoft Speech Technologies, a division of the software giant. "It makes more sense."
Still, Sonum's all-male company - made up on the creative side of a bearded college professor, a 34-year-old new father and two 20-something graduate students - swears its "natural language processor" is the one that will make the 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 technology companies 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 only sustain a business for so long.
In 1981, Sonum's creator, W. Randolph "Randy" Ford, was finishing work on a doctorate in artificial intelligence at the Johns Hopkins University. He had already concurrently earned a bachelor's degree in applied psychology and a master's degree in experimental psychology there.
At the time, few in the commercial realm had heard of the Internet. Only 1 percent of households owned a personal computer, and the only mouse most knew of was the kind invading pantries. But the education world was embracing burgeoning technologies, and Ford was determined to help others wrap their arms 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 was drawn in another direction after he became entranced by statistical calculators, learning to manipulate the data and write number-crunching programs.
"I fell for computers out of the blue," said Ford, now 54 and living in Marriottsville.