18 August, 2011


The wisdom of computers

The live subtitles available on rolling news programmes like BBC News and Sky News are generated using speech recognition software. An operator revoices the words heard into a piece of software which has been trained to his voice; the software generates the corresponding text. I guess it's cheaper than hiring skilled stenographers.

Software which could successfully handle the live feed directly would be really, really impressive. Imagine code which can faithfully transcribe the words of Neil Nunes reporting from a noisy outside broadcast location. Now that would be something special; and jolly useful too — you could listen to the irritating bastard with the sound turned down.

But the existing technology is pretty damned clever. Most of the time. Sometimes it has ideas of its own.

On yesterday's BBC News, during a report on Stephen House's candidature for the top job at the Met, the subtitles starting banging on about
... Antiguan operations ...
Antiguan operations? Is there much Antiguan crime in Glasgow then? Most of the Antiguan people I've met have been honest upstanding types. Do they have a dark seceret, perchance? It's only a small island; surely there can't be enough ex-pat Antiguans to cause a Scottish crimewave. Then the captions operator keyed in a correction
...anti-gang operations ...
Phew! Normality restored.

And then the weather forecast came on and the presenter promised us, at least according to the subtitles,
A Sunni start.
Aargh! The shape of things to come?

That is pretty darn clever. And there was me thinking it was bashed out by audio typists.

Spare a thought for those of us who have to use them. I get intermittent tinnitus and I have use the subtitles when it's bad. Most channels don't bother with them and SkyNews thinks all deaf people go to bed at 8pm. The BBC is best at subtitling but as you say, the text is sometimes completely wrong. Some of the mistakes are hilarious!

A Sunni start, but mostly Shi'ite?

"Neil Nunes...you could listen to the irritating bastard with the sound turned down"

I always turn the electricity off when confronted with his faux-Jim Davidson accent.
It's really too much to bear.

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