Google’s Gboard is about to get a lot better at speech recognition

Google’s Gboard is already one of the most-loved software keyboards for mobile, and for good reason. It’s packed with awesome features, including great ways to search for GIFs and images, and even a way to make your own emoji. Now, the keyboard is getting even better thanks to new Google’s new all-neural on-device speech recognizer, which is now rolling out to phones with Gboard, starting with Pixel devices.

Speech-to-text algorithms aren’t necessarily anything new. We’ve been able to type with our voice using Gboard for some time now. Despite that, the tech that makes it all work is rather complex. First, the device records your voice, then sends it to the cloud where algorithms try to determine what’s being said. With the new speech recognizer, however, Google is taking that process offline, meaning voice recognition will take place on your device and will be a whole lot faster.

There is a reason Google has been using cloud-based processing up until now. Its “decoder graph,” which is the component of the algorithm that matches spoken words to written words, took up a hefty 2GB of storage. Google, however, has been working on shrinking that. According to its blog post, the company was able to use “parameter quantization and hybrid kernel techniques” to compress its speech algorithms. Sound complex? It doesn’t really matter how Google minimized storage demands for its speech algorithms — what matters is that it was able to reduce its decoder graph to 80MB, which is easily small enough to fit on a modern smartphone. The development of the new tech took five years.

Of course, it may take a while for the new tech to roll out to all smartphones. Google is starting by bringing the Gboard update to Pixel phones, and only in American English. It’s likely, however, that the tech will be brought to more phones, and eventually to more languages, too. If you own a Pixel phone and use your device in American English, it’s worth checking to see if you have an update to Gboard available now. If not, Google rolls updates out in waves and you may need to wait a few days.

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