Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Are Broadcasters Next?

I listen to a lot of podcasts and increasingly it's becoming clear that some content is not being read by a person and spoken into a microphone but rather the text is converted to voice automatically using software. I can tell not because the voice sounds anything like the 1960s version of what Hollywood thought robots would sound like in the 21st century but because of slight mispronunciations and misinterpretations of the words. Two of these that come to mind are created by BusinessWeek and the Economist.

I wonder if it won't be possible one day to take a text document and use a piece of software to generate a voice narration of the words using the voice of famous people. There are hundreds of hours of archived sound recordings of famous people and presumably machines can parse a person's voice into just about anything you want it to be. So if you fed both the text and corresponding audio files of the entire corpus of Walter Cronkite (for example) into an artificially intelligent machine, then the system could eventually "learn" how Cronkite would say just about any word, syllable or phrase.

This system could then take any text you submit and generate a pretty damn good impersonation of Cronkite reading what you've written whether or not he's ever been recorded saying it. The system will have learned the idiosyncrasies of an individual's voice, inflection, pronunciation, pauses, etc. to fool perhaps even the speaker's family.

The implications are of course huge. First there are legal challenges. Would it be legal to take the voice of Michael Jordan and use it to pitch a sneaker brand that he is not currently affiliated with? Obviously not but in today's lawless web environment, who's gonna stop it? You could get almost anyone to say almost anything, I would imagine, including U.S. presidents making promises that they never made and holding them accountable to them. So there's fraud to be considered.

But how about the convenience factor? Let's say a manufacturer of designer clothes wants Whoopi Goldberg to be their spokesperson. She hasn't got the time to go into a studio and read a bunch of copy several takes in a row. So she signs permission for the company to take her voice and the aforementioned system that can create the illusion that she is talking when in fact she's relaxing at home. She (or her agent) would of course have to authorize the content and use of her vocal likeness, but the bottom line is, I think the technology is probably here already.

But alas, like so many modern phenomena, the law lags behind.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Technology and Televised Sports

I posted something about technological applications in sports refereeing. I believe that the role and responsibility of sports officials will change in the coming years owing to the implementation of advanced (mostly sensor) technology to more precisely measure what these men and women currently have to eye-ball and make snap decisions about. The technology is available; the impediments are economic and cultural. The latter is a question of whether owners, players, coaches, fans and officials themselves are willing to try them. For more, see: http://historicalaccident.blogspot.com/2009/05/technology-and-sports-referees.html

The technology is also available for a vastly different experience for the home spectator of professional sports. With the marriage of television and the Internet, the possibilities of customized broadcasts in sports could create a new generation of sports programming.

For example, in addition to watching the action on the field or court, viewers are also shown a variety of statistics and other graphics (including the current score of the game) which the broadcasters feel are timely or somehow relevant. But soon it will be possible to move those decisions from the producer to the consumer. We at home watching a baseball or basketball game will be given a menu of choices regarding which statistics to display and when. We could view on demand the game's leaders in scoring or hits or yards rushing, for example. We could even change the size and font of the display of the numbers or graphs including moving the score display to the upper or lower left corner. Those with small television screens or with poor eyesight could change the size of the display.

In addition to score or statistical displays-on-demand, there will be other options for television-based sports viewing. Most broadcast sporting events today are covered by several cameras and the number is likely to grow. It is not unreasonable to expect that one day soon certain games--particularly championships--will be covered by a dozen or more cameras. There are overhead cameras, end-zone, side-line and a host of other camera placements at sporting events.

Soon the sports fan at home will be able to choose through which camera they prefer to view the game and when. Replays, currently possible using a digital video recorder, will be expanded to be used in every camera in the arena or stadium. I can see the development of a broadcast feature, something like, "The AT&T Sideline Monitor".

Because professional sports today is like every industry facing a diminishing marginal return on it's investment, it will have to devise new innovations, products or services which tempt the consumer to stay loyal. The interactive nature of viewing sports events is one way in which I believe this will happen.

Saturday, May 16, 2009


The use of robots is becoming more and more common if you believe what you read in the newspapers. I suppose it's a lot like the introduction of computers: many of the appliances and implements that we used every day such as automobiles, VCRs, calculators, televisions and microwave ovens had computer chips embedded as early as the late 1970s but most of us didn't buy a personal computer until the early-mid 1990s. The way I understand it, robots are currently used in manufacturing, medicine and the military but quite soon their use as personal devices in our homes will become widespread.

The only instance that comes to mind is the Roomba, a home vacuum cleaner that is self-propelled and that covers the floors without any need for human intervention after powering on. Throughout most of the 20th century, American popular culture characterized robots as ultimately evil and destined to turn against their human owners or operators. The scientist who invented the robot was usually evil and created the device for nefarious purposes. But I understand that in Japan, the land of Godzilla and other (according to American popular opinion) campy science fiction, robots are seen as benign and actually welcomed. They are expected to care for the elderly or the children and take the drudgery out of routine housework.

But as far as more mainstream applications, I can see a lot happening in a short time. I should first emphasize though, that modern robots are very sophisticated and continue to "learn" after they are implemented. For this reason they can probably take on a large number of our more routine jobs. The first that comes to mind is just about anything that's retail. For stores which sell those things that simply must be bought (and examined beforehand) in person, it is only a matter of time before the cashier is a robot which can respond to your routine questions regarding discounts, store hours, return policy, etc. They may also be able to tell you quite a bit about the product and variations, uses, etc. but I wouldn't expect that immediately.

They say that the automatic teller machines where most of us get our cash has over the years replaced something like 15,000-20,000 bank tellers. I can see the same thing happening to many retail cashiers.

In stores which remain physical entities (i.e. not strictly selling online) and which sell extremely uniform products with brands that everyone trusts (i.e. drugstores, discount department stores) it is entirely plausible that the cashiers will be replaced in part by robots. So in a place like Rite-Aid, Wal-Mart, Walgreens, etc. where each item has a radio-frequency chip, the $9-10 an hour cashier could be most economically replaced by a robotic cashier which could total up an order, desensitize the micro-chip, place it in a bag or box and process payments electronically or with cash. As long as the customer doesn't have too many questions although even there robots are becoming sophisticated enough to decipher a variety of human speech and respond in an intelligible fashion.

The whole question is--as always--economics. Will it be cheaper to purchase these things or to pay clerks the going rate to do the same thing? That of course depends on the going pay rate, which may not include health or other benefits, schedule disruption by absent or sick employees, and the limits that an 8 hour work day imposes. For robots, these costs are weighed against the price of one of these robot-cashiers, their expected useful life, requirements for electricity and maintenance, etc. and the fact that they can work 24/7.

But I'll bet that unless entry level cashiers start selling their labor extremely cheap and are very reliable, at least some retailers will start implementing customer service robots.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

New Economic Order

I recently suspended home newspaper delivery while I am on vacation. However I wonder if home delivery will be an option when I get back. Traditional print newspapers appear to be dying off, supplanted by news sources on the Internet. Some newspapers will survive as websites but I can't see how the delivery of a printed edition can survive except where subscribers are willing to pay 2-3 times what they are currently charged.

Some blame the newspapers themselves for not seeing these changes coming or for not reacting to them appropriately. The same arguments are made regarding automobile manufacturers who took the competition from Japanese automakers too lightly and are now facing insolvency.

We could assign blame to just a few individuals perhaps but there is a quote which bears repeating here. I'm afraid the exact phrase and originator escape me now but it goes something like this: "It is hard to get a man to believe something when his earning a paycheck depends on his not believing it."

Friday, March 27, 2009

Free Higher Ed Lectures but is Certification What Employers Want?

College level courses are available to a larger audience than ever before thanks to digital media. Many of them are available at no cost. YouTube for example has an 'edu' channel which carries lectures and other educational videos. This means that a person can essentially attend college classes without paying any fees. They won't take any exams, turn in any term papers or receive any grade and most importantly they won't receive any credit. But at least some of them will learn something about the course subject. Many will fail to stay with the entire series of lectures, but others will become highly engaged and perhaps know as much or more than the on-campus student who pays tuition and completes the course in person.

This has been a long time coming. Since the invention of moving pictures, radio and television, people have been eagerly anticipating a change in the delivery of education and a much broader reach, serving millions of people who otherwise would never receive any comparable instruction.

However, the other (and for many people, primary) objective of higher education is in securing employment. Independently watching hours of college lectures supplemented by readings on one's own offers no such assurance. In the past, employers traditionally have depended on colleges and universities to provide some assurance that job applicants have absorbed the right information and went about learning in a disciplined, systematic manner. For example, at one time the baccalaureate ensured that students are able to compose a thoughtful essay that supports a certain viewpoint and cites facts to that end. But from what I read in the newspapers, many of today's college graduates lack many skills that an undergraduate education previously conferred. It seems today that paying tuition, attending class, completing assignments (for better or worse) and basically acting responsibly are all that seems to be needed to earn a bachelor's degree.

I wonder then about giving away content (in the form of free online lectures) when presumably many people pay tens of thousands of dollars for the same content. Are they paying for the information that could before now only be obtained by enrolling in an institution of higher learning? Or are they buying something else?There is no guarantee that a job is forthcoming for either the independent student or the matriculating, tuition-paying student. The only difference is that the latter (for the time being at least) is more likely to be invited to an interview.