Facebook acquires speech-recognition startup Wit.ai

Is a verbal "Like" feature on the way?

Wit.ai's technology lets people talk to robots, apps, and, maybe soon, Facebook.
Wit.ai's technology lets people talk to robots, apps, and, maybe soon, Facebook.

Facebook is acquiring Wit.ai, a speech-recognition startup whose technology could give the social network new ways to let users connect verbally.

Wit.ai, less than two years old, has a platform that lets outside developers incorporate speech recognition into apps, home devices such as thermostats, and even robots. More than 6,000 developers have used its technology to build apps and devices that people can talk to, the Palo Alto, California-based company says.

It's unclear how exactly its technology will be incorporated into Facebook, though it's likely to help Facebook compete against Apple's Siri and Google voice search. "Wit.ai has built an incredible yet simple natural language processing API that has helped developers turn speech and text into actionable data. We're excited to have them onboard," Facebook said in a statement. Financial terms were not disclosed.

In addition to its technology, Wit.ai's core team will be joining Facebook at its headquarters in Menlo Park, California. However, the technology won't become exclusive to Facebook. The platform will remain open and become entirely free for outside developers, Wit.ai said in a blog post.

But the application of Wit.ai's technology to Facebook could make for some interesting new products or features. Take search, for example: Facebook has been ramping up its efforts there, having recently added the ability to let users search for old posts. Some form of speech recognition could be incorporated there.

Facebook's interest in search goes beyond posts. Two years ago, the company announced its development of Graph Search, an effort to let users search with natural-language queries such as, "New York sushi restaurants my friends like." Wit.ai may help speed up Facebook's development of graph search, or even let users phrase their queries in a more natural way.

Messaging is another area that could benefit from Wit.ai technology. Speech-to-text conversion could be incorporated into Facebook's Messenger app. Facebook-owned WhatsApp is also said to be planning a voice calling feature, so there could be some tie-ins there.

In other words, there are many possibilities. Maybe in the future, instead of tapping "Like" when we see entries on Facebook, we'll walk around saying it to our smartphones.

Zach Miners covers social networking, search and general technology news for IDG News Service. Follow Zach on Twitter at @zachminers. Zach's e-mail address is zach_miners@idg.com

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