'Spoken web' aims to beat India's digital poverty trap
A New Delhi-based research team is attempting to bring the power of the web to rural villagers — without computers.
The team from the IBM India Research Laboratory (IRL) is testing a spoken version of the Internet targeted at people who cannot read or afford a computer but have access to a cellphone. In India 300 million people use cellphones, up from zero a decade ago.
Guruduth Banavar, director of the IBM IRL, says this system will help local communities by, for example, allowing farmers to sell their own produce directly without going through a middleman, or enabling an electrician who cannot afford a storefront to attract customers, or allowing villagers to access health information.
The spoken web is a network of VoiceSites — voice-based websites that people create by calling the number for software named VoiGen.
VoiGen — developed by the IBM team — guides the caller through the process of setting up a VoiceSite, recording relevant information such as contact details, and assigns a telephone number to each site.
Callers to a VoiceSite number can switch from one site to another by pressing a key or saying a word via a new protocol developed by IBM called hyperspeech transfer protocol.
Tapan Parikh from the University of California, Berkeley, who is working with the IBM team on the project, says this is a chance to make "an entirely new kind of web".
New Scientist 2,679, 22 (2008)