Forsee The Speakularity

James Somers at Nautilus on the “Speakularity“:

We are going to start recording and automatically transcribing most of what we say. Instead of evaporating into memory, words spoken aloud will calcify as text, into a Record that will be referenced, searched, and mined. .. Think of all the reasons that you search through your email. Suddenly your own speech will be available in just the same way. “Show me all conversations with Michael before January of last year … What was the address of that restaurant Mum recommended? …” Robin Hanson, an economist at George Mason University and a co-author of a forthcoming book on evolutionary psychology, has speculated that we might all get in the habit of peppering our speech with keywords, to help us look it up later. …

Much of what is said aloud would be published and made part of the Web. An unfathomable mass of expertise, opinion, wit, and culture—now lost—would be as accessible as any article or comment thread is today. ..

It won’t reshape the basic ways we live and love. It won’t turn our brains to mush, or make us supermen. . .. People talk a lot—on average, about 40 percent of their waking lives. .. anyone who’s ever recorded someone knows that self-conscious monitoring of your own speech is just too mentally expensive to carry on for very long. … After a short while, you go back to normal.

Hanson also thinks “normal” would be the operative word once ubiquitous speech transcription arrives. He’s not convinced that it would change the world as much as some seem to think it would. “As soon as you see just how different our world is from 1,000 years ago, it’s really hard to get very worked up about this,” he says.

There was almost no privacy 1,000 years ago, he explains. Living quarters were dense. Rooms were tiny … Other people could overhear your lovemaking. When you traveled, you hardly ever went by yourself; you roamed around in little groups. Most people lived in small towns, where most everybody knew everybody else and gossiped about them. The differences in how we lived between then and now were huge. And yet we adapted. “I gotta figure the changes we’re looking at are small by comparison,” he says. …

Having a Record will just give us a new dimension on which to map a capacity we’ve always had. People who are constantly being recorded will adapt to that fact by becoming expert at knowing what’s in the transcript and what’s not. They’ll be like parents talking around children. They’ll become masters of plausible deniability. They’ll use sarcasm, or they’ll grimace or grin or lean their head back or smirk, or they’ll direct their gaze, so as to say a thing without saying it.

It sounds exhausting, but of course we already fluidly adapt to the spectrum of private, small-group, and public conversations—just go to a workplace. Or go to a party. We are constantly asking and answering subtle questions about our audience, and tuning our speech based on the answers. (Is Jack in earshot? Is Jack’s wife in earshot?)

“There’s no way this means that everything we say is now in the open,” Hanson argues. “There’s a layer of what we say that’s in the open … but we’re always talking at several levels at once.” … Our brains adapted to writing, to libraries, and to the Web. They will adapt to the Record. And people will, anyway, continue to be less concerned with how they sound than with how they look. (more)

Even if this change is smaller than changes to which we’ve already adapted, still it will be a real change. The biggest open question is what fraction of our speech will go directly into a public record. I find it hard to believe this would be the majority, but then I wouldn’t have predicted how much people are willing to say publicly on Twitter or Facebook.

Even for speech that isn’t directly made public, we would all know that everyone who heard a conversation had a private record, from which they could choose to privately share selected quotes. Of course we already worry about people quoting things we say in private to others, but direct recordings would be more believable and thus more worrisome. Laws prohibiting such recordings could reduce such problems, but would hardly eliminate them.

The big obvious change to predict is that we will be less clear and direct, even in private, when saying things that might make us look bad when quoted later. Already twitter speak tends to be more sarcastic, ironic, and loaded with local references that make it harder for outsiders to clearly understand. Expect most ordinary speech to move in this direction.

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  • interstice

    Why do you think that we will soon start transcribing everything we say? We already have the power to record everything we say, but we don’t do that.

    • sflicht

      I don’t think we have the power to do that (cheaply and conveniently) yet. Speech recognition software is just barely getting to the point where it might be possible soon. Simply recording the raw audio is not as useful because it’s not searchable until transcribed or otherwise processed, and until quite recently was too expensive to store. Something like 300MB per hour for mono audio sampled at 44kHz (CD quality). So that’s about 2GB per person per day if you only record the 40% times 16 waking hours when people are talking. Definitely doable on a smartphone now, but it would have to be backed up to the cloud monthly to be practical on a device with ~64GB of storage. Realistically, you’d want the recordings to be synced to the cloud in realtime, and then remotely fed through speech recognition software to get a searchable recording tagged with timestamps. (In practice people will want video too, once the Google Glass taboo dies, but by then storage and bandwidth will probably be cheap enough to make it practical.)

      • Douglas Knight

        I know people that looked into this, figuring that they could just wait a few years to transcribe. The biggest problem is recording quality. You can mike yourself, if that’s all you want, but it’s very difficult to record multiple voices in a room. It’s easy for a human to listen in real life, but it is difficult for a human to disentangle voices from a simple recording. So either the hardware of the mikes will have to improve or computers will have to become superhuman at this task.

      • Vector mics make it easy to separate voices.

  • Laws prohibiting such recordings could reduce such problems, but would hardly eliminate them.

    Such laws have pretty much eliminated problems regarding recording telephone conversations, haven’t they?

  • Ted Chiang has written a short SF story on this that is freely available here:

  • `

    This looks way worse than prediction markets to a proverbial overconfident manager. Why would they allow it into workplace?

    • Will employers control all electronics that employees bring into the workplace enough to prevent private recordings?

  • jheuristic

    My wife already does it w/100% accuracy.

    • Highgamma

      She remembers everything. I can’t remember yesterday. What a technology to level gender differences!

  • Vamair

    There is a chance that the recording of all the person said during their life may be a good asset for restoration of their cryopreserved brain, depending on the technology used. Not for a simple structural scanning, but may be helpful for a complex restoration procedure of a damaged brain. Of the other uses, a large part of my communication is in text, and while history access is sometimes helpful or fun, it’s not something that completely changes my life.


    Won’t we simply see new etiquettes form? I really doubt we’ll just record all conversations, no matter how informal and everyone will just be OK with that… Of course people could cheat and this would go unnoticed most of the time but the social (perhaps even legal) punishment when caught would be high, at least that’s what I expect.

  • Robert Koslover

    Yep. No more privacy. Well… as my elderly mother has observed more than once, “thank heaven I’m not living nowadays!”

  • Faze

    Having transcribed many hours of recorded meetings and interviews in my time, I can testify that the human speech is mostly garbage, from a usable information standpoint. Face-to-face communication is carried out through half-spoken thoughts, innuendo, pauses, facial expressions, codes, as well as words. Put it down on paper and its a big nothing. Carefully written, thoughtfully revised prose will always be the most useful vector for information.

  • Cambias

    What’s to prevent people from editing the transcriptions?

    • IMASBA

      You can edit your own recordings but not those of your conversational partners…

      • Cambias

        So that puts us right back at “who do you believe?” again, just as if we had no transcript.

      • IMASBA

        If there are no public recordings/no other witnesses and you’re trying to convince someone who wasn’t there, then yes.

        Although I suppose one could somewhat safeguard against this by saving the source audio file, those are more difficult to tamper with (but of course not impossible in a high tech future).

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