I’m sure you’ve heard of SpinVox – the UK-based firm that turns your voicemails into texts. And I’m pretty certain you’ve probably used them at some point – or know someone who has.
There’s been rumours flying around since SpinVox first surfaced that the clever technology that recognises speech and turns it into a pretty text wasn’t as smart as the company claimed it was. As their website says:
“So D2’s pretty smart. It’s bound to be, as D2’s a combination of artificial intelligence, voice recognition and natural linguistics. But it also knows what it doesn’t know and is able to call on human experts for assistance”
But how often are these ‘human experts’ called? And who are they?
Rory Cellan-Jones, the BBC’s Technology Correspondent, has done a little digging – and come up with some shocking facts (link).
Claims have been made to the BBC that the majority of messages are manually transcribed by low paid staff in battery farmed call centres in South Africa and the Philippines.
And former call centre worker Mohammed Mustafa told the BBC “The machine doesn’t understand anything. You have to start typing when you hear the message.”
SpinVox have declined to tell the BBC how many messages are manually transcribed, claiming that information is ‘highly confidential and sensitive data’.
So do SpinVox treat your voice messages as ‘highly confidential and sensitive?’ Apparently not. The BBC took a look through SpinVox’s registration information under the Data Protection Act, and found the company claims it doesn’t transfer any data outside the European Economic Area. Which is fine, because obviously South Africa and the Philippines had a meeting overnight when I wasn’t looking and suddenly became part of Europe.. didn’t they?
Meanwhile, there’s the whole question over money. Where precisely has all that investment – the BBC claims over £120m – gone? Apparently not on voice recognition technology. That leads on to another question – if its mostly gone on paying for transcriptions at call centres, then surely the business model just doesn’t add up? If the cost of an agent transcribing a message in a call centre is more expensive than the cost SpinVox charges to the customer, then what’s the point?
And whilst we’re on the subject of money, The Register reported last week that SpinVox had asked employees to take share options instead of wages. The BBC has a quote from ISP ANLX – who host some of SpinVox’s servers – saying that they’ve removed SpinVox’s access as they haven’t paid the bills. Plus there’s also rumours floating around that ex MIR contributor James Whatley – who heads up “Digital & Social Media” and is seen by many as the ‘voice’ of SpinVox on various social media sites – is no longer employed by the company on a full time basis.
Now to balance things up a bit. I quite like SpinVox – I’ve used it on and off for a number of years. It sort of does what it says on the tin – the accuracy is sometimes horrendous (Guinness came out as ‘Gurmish’ once) and I’ve had to dial in occasionally to actually listen to the message. Did it save me time listening to voicemails? Yes. Was I aware that they used humans? Yup. Did I mind? No, but I assumed – probably like everyone else – that it wasn’t one big battery farming dictation operation with apparently not a single bit of technology involved.
I’m going to cancel my subscription to SpinVox today – and I’m sure other people will be. Something just doesn’t feel right here. I feel like we – as the mobile industry – have been misled about just how wonderful and technologically advanced the service really was. And if I was an investor specialising in funding hi-tech ventures, right now I’d be on the phone to my lawyers clarifying what I’d really invested in.