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You talkin' to me?

  • 12 October 2012
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  • Published in Profiler

It was pure accident that led to Dr Clive Summerfield becoming one of the nation’s leading speech recognition and voice biometrics experts. On first arriving in Australia he’d been offered the pick of two research jobs – one working on video technology and the other on speech – by the time he had decided he fancied working in video that position had been filled, leaving just the speech research role open.

The rest as they say is history – and in Summerfield’s case it’s a rich history.

Today he’s the founder and chief executive of Auraya Systems, which has developed Armorvox, a voice biometric and speech recognition system that is already deployed in St George Bank and New Zealand’s tax office. It’s his second start-up having previously founded Syrinx which produced speech recognition which was used in TABs, CommSec and AT&T in the US.

Summerfield’s timing is better this time around thanks to the advent of the smartphone. According to ABS statistics released this week there are now over 16 million mobile phone subscribers in Australia, and a growing proportion of these are smartphones – used not only for voice but internet connection.

With security a key issue for smartphone users voice biometrics seems the logical technology to allow user authentication. At the same time enterprise contact centres could also benefit from a technology which allows someone ringing in to be identified and authenticated just from their voice print.

Summerfield’s banking on it, with his core ambition being to turn Auraya into a real alternative to market leader Nuance.

His first enterprise, Syrinx, was founded in 1990, and over a decade used $20 million in venture capital to become the largest speech recognition business outside of the US and Europe, with a team of 65 people. But along the way Summerfield was ousted by new management installed at the company and started casting around for new opportunities.  

Nine months later when Syrinx went into liquidation Summerfield found himself working with Ted Dunstone, helping to set up Australia’s Biometrics Institute; and later working with VeCommerce which was a Nuance reseller and has since been bought by Salmat.

He was then offered a position as an Adjunct Professor at the University of Canberra in computer science focussed on biometrics. “I was a Clayton’s professor – they pretend to pay me so I pretend to work,” says Summerfield. But the gig eventually led to his latest adventure.

In 2005 Centrelink asked the university to undertake an evaluation of off the shelf voice biometrics, and Summerfield helmed the project through his consulting business 3SH which developed a methodology for evaluating voice biometrics.

“Centrelink worked out that by automating authentication they could save a bundle and strengthen security.” On the back of that report the organisation starting talking to Telstra about implementing a voice biometrics system. In a curious twist of fate Telstra had ended up with the Syrinx intellectual property in its portfolio, having bought local business Kaz, which had itself salvaged the IP from the wreck of Syrinx.

The market for speech recognition meanwhile was dominated internationally by Nuance and Speechworks – but Summerfield believed there was still room for an alternative technology.  

In September 2006, with the support of a ComET (Commercialising Emerging Technologies) grant, Summerfield set up Auraya, and transferred the IP from 3SH into the new business, and applied for a patent on the provision of voice biometrics over IP networks. Today Auraya holds that patent in Australia and it is pending in the US.

“What we saw happening was that Nuance would create a competitive advantage around the fact that it owned the core technology. We knew that they were getting very competitive against their resellers,” says Summerfield. He did not want to resell other companies’ technology, but develop new systems which would provide resellers with an alternative technology platform. Auraya has now signed up about 40 partners worldwide.

“We kicked off in 2007 by winning a few evaluations and assisted the NAB with the design of their voice biometric system – we’d also been picked up by Vanguard group in the US – a large pension provider.” Not only did this generate some revenues of the start up it also allowed Auraya to work out how to package up its evaluation methodologies. “Before you design your core technology want to work out how to test it,” says Summerfield.

The process also proved the value of Auraya’s “imposter map” approach. Summerfield explains; “When you build a voice biometric – you’re not really interested in how well the true speaker does against their voice print – but how well it repels the imposters. Once you understand that you can set the thresholds to decide where the boundaries are between imposters and true speakers.

“What we found in the evaluations – which we then patented - was that when you register a voice print on the system the ability to repel imposters varies from one speaker to another. At the moment you set one threshold across the system and everyone has to get above that threshold – which leads to a sub optimal solution. We developed speaker adaptive biometric technology which on enrolment measures security performance of the voiceprint then sets the threshold based on that.”

By this time Summerfield had managed to reassemble some of his team from the Syrinx days including R&D engineer Habib Talhami – who Summerfield describes as “close to genius.” “We bought him the biggest most powerful computer we could afford. After about six months we had a voice biometric working and generating results better than available on the market. Because we had a tool to measure security performance we could develop the tuners. We had now a solution that could tune itself.”

Armorvox 9, which is the latest release of the product is designed to tune itself on the fly. Auraya works with partners to deploy the technology and in September 2011 Salmat deployed Armorvox in St George bank’s call centre. Customers call in, say their name and account number and the system verifies their identity.

The Inland Revenue Department of New Zealand last year also implemented Armorvox as the front end to the call centre, and also uses the system to reset PINs and passwords – half a million people were enrolled in the first 12 months.

Today the Armorvox systems offers text dependent and text independent voice verification; text prompted recognition which also requires speech recognition capability; and on the fly tuning. In the future the plan is to extend the voice recognition capability of the system so that it becomes a fully fledged speech recognition/voice biometric system.

Summerfield is keenly aware of the fact that his major competition – Nuance – is a huge international company with deep pockets. Auraya by comparison, he acknowledges is; “half a dozen over-caffeinated engineers and a pile of wires.”

He likes a challenge though. Raised in Birmingham, England Summerfield was the elder of two sons born to a coal miner father who became a handyman when ill health forced him out of the mines and a mother who sold insurance door to door until she returned to university in her 50s.

Summerfield, now 56, had his interest in technology piqued when his mother bought him a Philips radio kit at age 11. His Uncle also allowed him free rein of a shed filled with electrical bits and pieces.

After a lacklustre start to high school Summerfield clawed his way to the top, becoming the only student from the school to get into university. He studied electrical and electronic engineering at Loughborough University – though his first term passed in a beery blur he admits. His family had relocated to Malvern, home to the UK’s Royal Signals and Radar Establishment where Summerfield managed to secure some important work experience.

After graduating, Summerfield worked in the UK for a while before relocating to Australia where he approached AWA for a job. “I walked in – there were two jobs on offer, video processing and speech processing - they said ‘which would you like?’. I asked for a few days to think about it – I went back and said I’d like video processing, and they said ‘that’s gone, it has to be speech’.”

Summerfield and speech proved a good match, with him eventually developing a speech chip for his PhD at Sydney University. After a stint working at Edinburgh University one of the world leading institutions in the field, Summerfield and his young family returned to Sydney where he started up Syrinx, which kicked off his commercial dance with speech synthesis, recognition and voice biometrics now well into its third decade.

Summerfield has remarried and lives in Canberra (by a twist of fate close to his brother who is married to Hungary’s Ambassador to Australia), but with R&D in Sydney and an office in the US, spends a lot of time on the road.

But home, like Auraya’s future, is just a phone call away.


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