Keep Talking, the State Listens

DARPA is funding a project that uses crowdsourcing to improve how machines analyze our speech. Even more radical: DARPA wants to make systems so accurate, you’ll be able to easily record, transcribe and recall all the conversations you ever have... But it’s not just about better recordings of what you say. It’ll lead to more recorded conversations, quickly transcribed and then stored in perpetuity — like a Twitter feed or e-mail archive for everyday speech. Imagine living in a world where every errant utterance you make is preserved forever.

University of Texas computer scientist Matt Lease… has attracted enough attention for Darpa to award him a $300,000 award over two years to study the new project, called “Blending Crowdsourcing with Automation for Fast, Cheap, and Accurate Analysis of Spontaneous Speech.” The project envisions a world that is both radically transparent and a little freaky.

The idea is that business meetings or even conversations with your friends and family could be stored in archives and easily searched. The stored recordings could be held in servers, owned either by individuals or their employers….

How? The answer, Lease says, is in widespread use of recording technologies like smartphones, cameras and audio recorders — a kind of “democratizing force of everyday people recording and sharing their daily lives and experiences through their conversations.” But the trick to making the concept functional and searchable, says Lease, is blending automated voice analysis machines with large numbers of human analysts through crowdsourcing. That could be through involving people “strategically,” to clean up transcripts where machines made a mistake. Darpa’s older EARS project relied entirely on automation, which has its drawbacks….

Crowdsourcing is all about harnessing distributed networks of people — crowds — to do tasks better and more efficiently than individuals or machines. Recently, that’s meant harnessing large numbers of people to build digital maps, raising funds for a film project at Kickstarter, or doing odd-jobs at Amazon Mechanical Turk — one system being studied as part of the project. Darpa has also taken an interest in crowdsourcing as a way to analyze vast volumes of intelligence data, and Darpa’s sibling in the intelligence community, IARPA, has researched crowdsourcing as a way to find the best intelligence predictions.

It also raises some thorny legal and social questions about privacy. For one, there is an issue with “respecting the privacy rights of multiple people involved,” Lease says. One solution, for a business conference that’s storing and transcribing everything said by the participants, could be a mutual agreement between all parties. He adds that technical issues when it comes to archiving recorded speech are still open questions, but people could potentially hold their cell phone conversations on remote servers; or on individual, privately-held servers.

The other problem is figuring out how to search massive amounts of transcribed speech, like how search engines such as Google use complex algorithms to match and optimize search queries with results that are likely to be relevant. Fast and cheap web analytics — judging what people type and matching it up to what they click — is one way to do it. Studying focus groups are more precise, but expensive. A third way, Lease suggests, is using more crowdsourcing as a sort of a “middle-ground” between the two methods.

But it’s unknown how the research will be applied to the military. Lease wouldn’t speculate, and it’s still very much a basic research project. Though if it’s similar to EARS at all, then it may not be too difficult to figure out. A 2003 memorandum from the Congressional Research Service described EARS as focusing on speech picked up from broadcasts and telephone conversations, “as well as extract clues about the identity of speakers” for “the military, intelligence and law enforcement communities.” Though Lease didn’t mention automatically recognizing voices. But the research may not have to go that far — if we’re going to be recording ourselves.

Excerpt, BY ROBERT BECKHUSEN, Darpa Wants You to Transcribe, and Instantly Recall, All of Your Conversations, Wired, Mar. 4, 2013

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