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February 3, 2010

SpinVox revelations ‘not a surprise’ to those in industry

When it was revealed in July 2009 that voice-to-text firm SpinVox was using humans in call centres all over the world to translate voicemails into text messages - rather than machines, as the company had claimed - it signalled the start of the end

By Cbr Rolling Blog

When it was revealed in July 2009 that voice-to-text firm SpinVox was using humans in call centres all over the world to translate voicemails into text messages – rather than machines, as the company had claimed – it signalled the start of the end for the firm, which was sold to Nuance a few months later.

While the revelations were damaging for SpinVox, Ashley Griffiths, EMEA MD at voice-to-text vendor Vlingo, has told CBR that SpinVox’s claims had already raised plenty of questions to those in the same space.

“I don’t think the revelations came as a surprise to those of use in the industry,” Griffiths says, “because we were mindful of the claims they were making in the marketplace as we speak to the same customers. There are certain things you can do to test the technology that, if it’s right, you know can only mean human intervention. One of those is to speak the alphabet backwards; no automated speech system is going to get that.”

BBC technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones, who broke the story, said that he tested the system to see if the claims of human intervention were true. “It was suggested to me that if I recorded a message and then sent it five times in a row to my mobile, then a computer would provide the same result every time,” he wrote. “My message was deliberately stumbling and full of quite difficult words – including my rather tricky name. But every version that came back to me in text form was radically different – and pretty inaccurate.”

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Griffiths, however, says that total accuracy on voice-to-text translation will probably never be 100% accurate. “But is typing 100% accurate? Absolutely not,” he says. “We find that we’re over 92% accurate in terms of task completion and that’s about the same as error rates in typing.”

There were other clues that raised suspicions about SpinVox‘s services. “In my personal opinion, SpinVox running out of money was what set the alarm bells ringing,” he told CBR. “They had taken a lot of cash – where was that going? Was it going to pay for people in call centres transcribing messages?”

SpinVox has never hidden the fact that it uses human intervention on its services. What the BBC’s revelations focused on was that the majority of messages were being seen by humans, rather than the small number that the company claimed. “Speech algorithms do not learn without human intervention and all speech systems require humans for learning – SpinVox does this in real-time,” the firm said in a statement before adding that some messages are sent to a “conversion expert” if needed.

Griffiths maintains that Vlingo‘s service is entirely automated with no human intervention – and that’s why they don’t offer voicemail translation. The SpinVox revelations, he adds, should not prove too damaging to the industry in the long run.

“I think it creates an opportunity for us to demonstrate that a really useful utility like voice recognition can be fully automated. One of the challenges with voicemail is that you get so many different people ringing you and it’s very difficult, almost impossible, for a system to be able to adapt to all those different voices,” he says.

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