BBC Belatedly Uncovers Human Side Of Spinvox

The Beeb's Rory Cellan-Jones found out that Spinvox, a UK company which translates voice mails into text messages, uses primarily flesh-and-bone workers rather than machines and artificial intelligence to do the job.

The company is expected to attract up to 100 million users by the end of this year (in comparison, microblogging phenomenon Twitter had 6 million unique visitors in February 2009) and has raised more than $200 million since it was founded in 2004.

Spinvox says that its proprietary technology allows it to convert voicemails into text using a Voice Message Conversion System called D2 which, the company claims "captures spoken words and spits them out as text content".

But the BBC has uncovered that it actually works in a way similar to Amazon's Mechanical Turk. The speech-to-text recognition engine doesn't apparently work as well as expected and Spinvox managed to sidelined the issue by bringing in humans.

The investigation carried out by the corporation found out that the majority of the messages appear to have been processed by call centre workers. Furthermore, many users have noticed that Spinvox's quality of service has substantially declined over the last few months.

The Register noted that "the transcriptions became slower, and contained more blanks, more wild guesses, and more errors" but questions whether "the BBC should pause for a moment before patting itself on the back".

After all, unlike many of its Web 2.0 peers, Spinvox has a real userbase, real profits and a real revenue stream. To make things a bit more confusing for the Beeb, Spinvox made no secret of their offshore operations.

However, they might have to answer some rather embarassing questions from the Information Commissioner, given the fact that the countries mentioned in the BBC report where the voice processing is done - South Africa, Egypt and Philippines - are not part of the EU.

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Our Comments

Much ado about nothing is what pops to mind when reading the Beeb's report. Customers do not necessarily care about whether humans or machines do the translations as long as the terms and conditions are clearly laid out and there are systems implemented to reduce the risk of abuse.

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