Gongol.com Archives: September 2009
Brian Gongol

September 16, 2009

Computers and the Internet Google Voice: It's really just transcription practice
Yes, it's obvious that Google Voice, the telephone/messaging service offered by Google, fits nicely within Google's unified-messaging project; after all, Gmail is a very attractive webmail service, and adding telephone access makes for a very good complementary service. But there's something else behind the rollout of Google Voice: It's a way for Google to sharpen its voice-to-text algorithms quickly. Google Voice offers voicemail transcription, which they admit is still rather new and needs a lot of work. But here's what's brilliant about Google's plan: By offering automated transcription of short soundbites (voice messages, after all, are usually about a minute or so in length), and then offering them for user review (it's simply a matter of noting whether the transcript was useful or not, but that could easily change in the future). So, in other words, Google's computers do the work, and then the work is checked by human beings (the people who receive the voice messages). This human checking of automated work will, over time, make the transcription service "smarter" -- better and more accurate -- at a notoriously difficult task. The reason this is useful to Google is because it will help Google make the next huge leap towards its mission to "organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." Sure, we type a lot. But we talk a whole lot more. And that talking, even when it's on the television or the radio, often goes undocumented. CNN is one of the very few sources that generates lots of transcripts for its television shows; very few other sources do the same, even for programs that have already been closed-captioned (as is required by US law). Undoubtedly, the people at Google have realized this, and know that huge amounts of television programming is broadcast but never transcribed, and that almost nothing broadcast on radio ever makes its way to transcription. That's because transcription is expensive, since it requires trained human beings who can be paid quite handsomely for their work. But if Google can find a way to produce accurate, automatic transcriptions, it can start pouring huge amounts of new content into its database of "the world's information". Google Voice and its voicemail transcription is a very clever way for Google to hone the accuracy of automated voice-to-text translation, which in turn will provide the company with a competitive advantage in the search-engine market in the years ahead. Just as Google's book-search service is adding huge amounts of exclusive content to the company's information database, so will a future Google Transcripts service. You heard it here first.

Business and Finance How China saves
When automatic transcription of radio and television broadcasts finally becomes a reality, people may be able to learn more from compelling broadcasts like a recent documentary from the BBC World Service, which investigated how China achieves an average household savings rate of about 30%. The short answer: They don't have any other choice; with a one-child-per-couple family-planning policy and no real national retirement savings program to speak of, Chinese households have to save aggressively or die. In the United States, the government takes 15.3% of most employment earnings and "saves" that money for retirement programs like Social Security and Medicaid. But the problem in the US is that that savings rate is far too small -- Medicare is going broke at a terrifying rate, and Social Security isn't fiscally sound over the long term, either. Medicare tax rates will have to rise -- or benefits will have to be cut -- within 8 years. Another worthwhile listen on the same topic comes from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, which aired a session involving three speakers discussing the future of the world's economy, and how American economic hegemony is likely to continue, but with serious challenges on many sides, including the further development of China's economy. The problem with great radio broadcasts like these is that they are linear -- one must listen from start to finish, and at the pace set by the speakers. But transcripts would enable people to read the same comments (usually faster than they could be heard), as well as to search within the text of the commentary. We can't really "search" through video and audio recordings of great lectures and speeches today, which leaves a lot of great ideas un-shared.

Broadcasting After 72 years, "Guiding Light" leaves the airwaves
The final episode of a soap opera that migrated from radio to television will air on Friday. It started on NBC Radio while Franklin Roosevelt was serving his second term in the White House. In a similar vein, the BBC is letting go of an announcer with 35 years of continuous experience working for one of its networks.

Computers and the Internet Typography for Lawyers
Or, why good lawyers shouldn't use bad fonts

Science and Technology The shrimp with the crazy eyes
Some animals have even more complex eyes than we do, a natural result of their evolutionary needs

Water News Matt Damon, spokesperson for clean water

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