Auto-transcription? Be careful what we wish for

07 Mar

robot-writingWhen thinking about the Pentagon’s technological research, it’s more pertinent to wonder what its scientists aren’t into than what are they into. The latest doozy from its James Bond-like Q-wing, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is a real imagination stoker: total transcription of every conversation on earth.

Yup. According to Wired, DARPA has given University of Texas computer scientist Matt Lease $300,000 over two years to work on a project called, “Blending Crowdsourcing with Automation for Fast, Cheap, and Accurate Analysis of Spontaneous Speech.” As per the article:

The idea is that business meetings or even conversations with your friends and family could be stored in archives and easily searched. The stored recordings could be held in servers, owned either by individuals or their employers.

This would be accomplished with all sorts of recording devices, from smartphones and video cameras to audio recorders. Algorithms would process the conversations, then upload and store them for future use.

One of the issues, however, would be marshaling humans to essentially copy edit the results. Machines could conceivably do the heavy lifting, but they still tend to miss things like punctuation, nuance and spellings of names. Since it is the military looking into this, having human shepherds could work in intelligence settings, where the volume of conversations being transcribed would be relatively small.

But in order for this to be applied to the larger civilian world, humans would have to be taken out of the equation entirely. Any journalist knows that transcribing conversations is the dullest job around, so it’s hard to imagine anybody willing to do so on a large scale. Even if someone were willing to pay them tons of money.

If it could be entirely automated, the implications would be staggering. For one, we’d have total recall of every conversation we’d ever had. No more fighting with the wife or girlfriend over what you or she may or may not have said. Let’s go back to the tape.

Search engines could mine our everyday conversations, with a bevy of potential uses springing from that. How about speech-based ads – “hey, we heard you talking about margarine just now – have you seen our new butter?”

To those same transcribing journalists, this technology seems like a godsend. No more hours spent going over recordings of interviews – it’s all instantly done for you.

But wait a minute, not so fast. Combine this sort of technology with robots that can write and we’re one step closer to being obsolete. If robots can figure out how to ask good questions, there really won’t be much need for human journalists. Then we can really start lamenting the state of the business.


Posted by on March 7, 2013 in DARPA, journalism, robots


2 responses to “Auto-transcription? Be careful what we wish for

  1. I am not a robot. Trust me.

    March 7, 2013 at 10:12 am

    When it comes to punctuation, humans are just using rules of grammar. I, don’t-understand why; its so ‘difficult’ four computers. Too implement (those) rules.

  2. Adrian

    March 8, 2013 at 2:20 pm

    I don’t really know either (and suuure you’re not a robot), except that human brains are basically pattern-recognition engines, and we are damn good at understanding each other even when we completely scramble, rush, or otherwise screw up communicating. While I’m sure computers will be able to transcript speech solo very well at some point, right now, not so much. Especially with the sheer number of different accents and pronunciations; as well as grammar rules not adhering identically to speech as they do to written language, or rather, how we often don’t use proper grammar while talking, but it is traditional to write such conversations using proper grammar. The best it can be expressed with proper grammar of course.

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