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Dec. 15, 2010, 1 p.m.

Coming soon to journalism: Matt Thompson sees the “Speakularity” and universal instant transcription

Editor’s Note: We’re wrapping up 2010 by asking some of the smartest people in journalism what the new year will bring.

We also want to hear your predictions: Take our Lab reader poll and tell us what you think we’ll be talking about in 2011. We’ll share those results later this week.

Here’s Matt Thompson, he of Newsless, Snarkmarket, and NPR fame.

At some point in the near future, automatic speech transcription will become fast, free, and decent. And this moment — let’s call it the Speakularity — will be a watershed moment for journalism.

So much of the raw material of journalism consists of verbal exchanges — phone conversations, press conferences, meetings. One of journalism’s most significant production challenges, even for those who don’t work at a radio company, is translating these verbal exchanges into text to weave scripts and stories out of them.

After the Speakularity, much more of this raw material would become available. It would render audio recordings accessible to the blind and aid in translation of audio recordings into different languages. Obscure city meetings could be recorded and auto-transcribed; interviews could be published nearly instantly as Q&As; journalists covering events could focus their attention on analyzing rather than capturing the proceedings.

Because text is much more scannable than audio, recordings automatically indexed to a transcript would be much quicker to search through and edit. Jon Stewart’s crew for The Daily Show uses expensive technology to process and search through the hundreds of hours of video the various news programs air each week. Imagine if that capability were opened up to citizens — if every on-air utterance of every pundit, politician, or policy wonk were searchable on Google.

The likeliest path to the Speakularity runs through Google. The company has already taken significant steps in this direction. They’ve trained their speech processing algorithms through the millions of queries submitted to Google 411, so that now, my Android phone is already pretty good at recognizing my voice commands. They automatically add captions to YouTube videos and transcribe voicemails through Google Voice. Developers can already call on Google’s voice recognition system when developing apps for Android devices.

The Speakularity itself probably won’t happen in 2011, but I think a key moment might. Let’s say that sometime in 2011, Google unveils a product called Google Transcribe. Not for charity, of course; better transcription = more relevant ads. The core of the product is a speech transcription API: send it audio and get back text in return. But there’s a front end to Transcribe where non-techies can get their mp3s auto-transcribed. Crucially, that app allows the user to manually correct the transcription (highlight a passage and it plays automatically), enabling a human feedback loop that makes the machine better and better over time. In addition to captioning, YouTube videos appear by default next to an automatically generated transcript that users can use for navigation, Debate-Viewer-style.

Constant social feedback plus machine learning could improve automatic speech transcription to the point where it’s finally ready for prime time. And when it does, the default expectation for recorded speech will be that it’s searchable and readable, nearly in the instant. I know this sounds totally retrograde, but I think it’s something like the future.

POSTED     Dec. 15, 2010, 1 p.m.
PART OF A SERIES     Predictions for Journalism 2011
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