- 24 Jul 09, 11:33 GMT
Our story yesterday about Spinvox - and the fact that much of its work in transcribing voicemails is done by humans rather than machines - made some waves. A number of users who had imagined that the service was all about clever software seemed mildly shocked and surprised to find out that they were often being read by call centre workers in the Philippines or India.
Others in the technology world said it had been known for years so what was the big deal. But Spinvox took the whole issue very seriously. Last night it put up a blog post describing my story as "incorrect and inaccurate" - but the company also invited me on a tour of its headquarters with the chance to see the technology behind its Voice Message Conversion System.
Christina Domecq, the company's co-founder came on the radio, talking to PM's Eddie Mair. He repeatedly pressed her on our central claim, that the majority of calls were read by humans rather than machines, but she maintained the company's line that this was a complex matter with no simple answer - the system learned as it went along, so that all of her messages, for instance, would be read by machine.
Later, she told the Guardian "The ratio of humans to messages and humans to number of users is very, very low." and "The majority of calls are fully automated."
Well I can only repeat what I've been told - and seen evidence to substantiate - that the majority of calls are in fact heard and transcribed by staff in call centres.
Christina Domecq also explained to the Guardian that as Spinvox ramped up from 30 to 100 million customers worldwide, it would be simply impossible to get human beings to do the job. That doesn't quite mesh with this quote from an interview with the paidcontent site, which has written extensively about Spinvox: "When we're going through massive growth, like we are now, we need more agents," she told the site in a lengthy interview. "A lot of Latin American dialects are new for us".
So what are they saying? That massive growth means the machines have to do most of the work - or that Spinvox has to recruit more call centre staff?
Late yesterday, someone pointed me to an advert on a site called offshoreexperts.com, where Spinvox appears to be seeking tenders for new call centre operations. It says that Spinvox "is currently in need of some significant support with our voice-to-text transcription services."
It outlines the nature of the work and then concludes:
"We would initially require you to provide us with c.50 agent workstations 24/7 for a 3 month trial, which if successful would lead to a 2/3 year long term commercial deal with significant ramp-up of agent resource numbers."
No very obvious sign there of a rapid move towards full automation.
And people I've spoken to in the speech recognition industry over recent days are largely of the view that Spinvox has set itself an impossible task. One firm also trying to provide a voicemail conversion service told me that if the company could really achieve the full automation to which Christina Domecq aspires, "it would be making money hand over fist." Its latest reported figures show it's a long way from that.
And Ian Turner, European MD of Nuance, the firm behind the Dragon brand of speech recognition products, told me a bit about his business. He explained a system where doctors dictate patient notes and prescriptions at high speed, and the computer-generated text is checked by a medical secretary.
That delivered very high levels of accuracy, he explained, but converting into text lots of different voices shouting down phone lines in different accents and languages was a much greater challenge: "This is serious deep engineering to build this stuff which takes years." And he said he'd seen no evidence that Spinvox were ahead of the game in this area.
Mr Turner also said that companies engaged in this work needed to be careful about data storage and transparent about their methods:"You have to be honest about this... in the current climate about data privacy, being transparent is absolutely critical."
By the way, I've written back to Spinvox accepting their kind invitation to come and see their systems close-up. But I've said the BBC would also like to see their overseas call centres. I'll let you know how they respond.
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites