The latest challenge to Google's AI dominance comes from an unlikely place -- Firefox

Key Points
  • The test comes almost four years after Google brought speech recognition to its desktop search engine.
  • About 30 people are now working on speech recognition technology at Mozilla.
Mitchell Baker, chairperson of Mozilla Foundation.
Getty Images

Mozilla, the company behind the Firefox internet browser, has begun testing a feature that lets you enter a search query using your voice instead of typing it in. The move could help Mozilla's efforts to make Firefox more competitive with Google Chrome.

If you're using Firefox in English on Mac, Windows or Linux, you can turn on the experimental "Voice Fill" feature and then use it on Google, Yahoo and DuckDuckGo. Support for other websites will come later.

Alphabet's Google offers speech recognition on its search engine when accessed through Chrome on desktop -- it became available in 2013 -- and Yahoo, Microsoft's Bing and Google all let you run search queries with your voice on mobile devices. But searching with your voice on Google while using Firefox on the desktop, for example, has historically been impossible. Now Mozilla wants to make its desktop browser more competitive.

The Voice Fill feature comes a few weeks after Mozilla announced the Common Voice Project that allows people to "donate" recordings of them saying various things in order to build up "an open-source voice recognition engine" that anyone will be able to use. Mozilla will use recordings from Voice Fill and the Common Voice Project in order to make the speech recognition more accurate, speech engineer Andre Natal told CNBC in an interview.

Mozilla's latest efforts follow Facebook's push into speech recognition. And speech technology has become hotter thanks to the rise of "smart" speakers like the Amazon Alexa, the Google Home, and the Apple HomePod. Harman Kardon is now building a speaker that will let people interact with Microsoft's Cortana assistant.

But these big technology companies have collected considerable amounts of proprietary voice data. So while they zig, Mozilla will zag. Mozilla will release to the public its voice snippets from the Common Voice Project later this year. The speech recognition models will be free for others to use as well, and eventually there will be a service for developers to weave into their own apps, Natal said.

"There's no option for both users and developers to use -- something that is both concerned about your privacy and also affordable," Natal said.

That said, Mozilla is following along with the rest of the tech crowd in the sense that the underlying system -- a fork of the Kaldi open-source software -- employs artificial neural networks, a decades-old but currently trendy architecture for training machines to do things like recognize the words that people say.

Mozilla initially explored incorporating speech recognition into the assistant for its Firefox OS for phones, but in 2016 it shifted the OS focus to connected devices, and earlier this year Mozilla closed up the connected devices group altogether.

Today Mozilla has five people working on speech research and a total of about 30 people working on speech technology overall, Natal said. Eventually the team wants to make the technology work in languages other than English.

Mozilla introduced the browser that became Firefox back in 2002. Over the years the nonprofit Mozilla Foundation has received financial support from Google and Yahoo. Mozilla CEO Chris Beard is currently focused on trying to get people to care about the company again, as CNET's Stephen Shankland reported this week. Recent moves include the launch of the Firefox Focus mobile browser and the acquisition of read-it-later app Pocket.

But while Firefox could have roughly 300 million monthly active users, Chrome has more than 1 billion.