A billion people live in India and roughly 60 percent of them are not fully literate. And yet, most of them have cell phones.
For Nixon Patel, CEO and founder of YantraSoft in Monmouth Junction, this is both crisis and opportunity.
YantraSoft’s business is speech technology software, specifically the kind that helps people learn to read their own languages by hearing what they see in text. And if YantraSoft can successfully market its text-to-speech (TTS) technology, Patel says, it can help alleviate illiteracy and bring India into the worldwide Internet community.
Particularly through Facebook. “Facebook has 500 million users, but only 20 million are in India,” Patel says. “There are 800 to 900 million people just sitting there.”
The basic idea behind YantraSoft’s aims is to allow people to use the spoken word to help them understand the written, thereby allowing people a chance to communicate in more ways than just face-to-face. You don’t have to know how to read or write in order to speak a language, but it helps if you need to connect with people who are not standing directly in front of you.
YantraSoft’s technology works through voice biometrics, which maps voice prints and translates them to text, or, alternatively, converts text into something you can hear. The company is more focused on TTS, which Patel says helps the illiterate or semi-literate “to hear the information you and I can generally read.”
YantraSoft is looking to close the digital divide through cell phones. In India, Patel says, there are not just more cell phones than computers, there are more cell phones than toilets. The ubiquity of mobile phones makes it the ideal item in which to install technology that can “speak” what is written in a text or other written communication.
Digital interaction between the computer and the user so far has been largely relegated to the keyboard, which requires advanced literacy. “In order to enable a wider population to benefit from information technology, there is a dire need for an interface other than keyboard and screen,” Patel says. “Speech, being a natural means of communication among human beings, can also provide a consummate platform for man-machine interaction.”
Speech and voice recognition abilities have a better chance to communicate with a large percentage of a population that includes the educationally underprivileged, the visually challenged, and the computer-illiterate, Patel says. Hence TTS and automatic speech recognition in Indian languages (there are 14 of them) would “alleviate the digital divide and bring ‘real’ democracy to the world’s largest democracy.”
Patel has made a career of speech technologies. Born and raised in India, Patel came to the United States in the late 1980s with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology. In 1989 he earned his master’s in computer science from NJIT, a degree he put to use at IBM in Raleigh, North Carolina.
At IBM he made $30,000 a year, which bothered him because “the bosses used to live off me,” he says.
In 1998 he founded the first of several companies in the software and voice recognition industries. He founded YantraSoft in 2008.
Despite his wish to make a better living for himself than IBM afforded him, Patel is not the cut-throat capitalist you might expect. He comes from a business and academic background — his father ran a chemical factory in India and his mother holds a Ph.D. in Sanskrit — but says he first pursues happiness and lets the money come to him. Patel says he learned his spirituality from his mother and his sense of ethics from his father.
But he also learned a lot from the Jesuits who taught him in Catholic school in India. “I’ve never seen more dedicated people in my life,” he says. “They did anything for others.” That sense of hard work and caring for others stuck — so much that he took his son to work in India while the boy was in 11th grade. “I wanted him to get a flavor for how kids struggle,” he says.
It’s a lesson he felt his son would not learn here, where even poverty is better than the living conditions in some parts of the world.
YantraSoft Inc., 3759 Route 1, Pavese-McCormick Building, Suite 203, Monmouth Junction 08852; 732-339-5420; fax, 732-339-5424. Nixon Patel, founder and CEO. www.yantrasoftware.com