AI Researchers Have Similar Expectation & Belief Problems to Ours

Much of my writing has been built around a very serious revelation that the belief that automation will take away jobs is killing industries. I focus on court reporting, but it’s happening everywhere. People are scared to become truckers because of Elon Musk’s claims that he will automate trucking. I’ve looked to many other industries to illustrate this. For other examples, take how it was assumed Uber would take over the world but it hasn’t made any profit or how it was assumed Theranos would revolutionize blood testing and it was all a big scam. Their actions had real-world consequences. To this day, the value of taxi medallions in New York City are decimated thanks to Uber even though it is, as of yet, not a sustainable business model. Technological hype can do big damage.

Well, as a proud subscriber to MIT Tech Review, I came across 10/15/2020 article by Will Douglas Heaven, “Artificial general intelligence, are we close, and does it even make sense to try?” This topic is of great interest to me. After all, the perfection of speech recognition automation would probably put me out of a job and I’m one of the many trying to tell people belief in AI is overblown and that ASR really can’t stand in for a stenographer. I have a moral obligation to keep on top of this stuff so that you don’t have to. Most of the article dives into a distinction between the current model of AI, machine learning, versus a concept called artificial general intelligence, or an AI that could colloquially “do it all.”

And you know what I find, reading that article? They have just as much fear as us. Their AI-centered businesses can fail all the same. They can burn through $20 million in late 90s money and still walk away with no real product.

“We are on the verge of a transition…” 1998. Arguably, we were, but we still don’t have digital brains on the internet as described here.

They have the same issue with charismatic figures promising or claiming things that have little or no basis in reality.

“Superhuman AI less than 5 years away” versus “He has no idea what he’s talking about.”

Unrealistic expectations can absolutely destroy their field. In ours, this plays out as people not believing it is a viable job. In theirs, this could play out as investors taking all that money propping them up and going somewhere else with it. This has happened before and is referred to as “AI winter.”

They’ve been dealing with AI interest boom and bust since the 1970s.

There’s a lot to be learned by looking directly at what’s going on in technology today. Perhaps most pressing for us is the realization that there is not some kind of magic unending growth built into technological progress. The last century, and particularly the last couple of decades, changed humanity. Technology exploded from no TV, to black and white TV, to the home entertainment centers we have today. Many of us are under a belief that technology will always grow at that pace. We are encouraged to think that not only due to our collective experience, having lived through the technological leap, but also encouraged by the people who stand to gain the most from people buying into that belief and investing into that belief.

Money and attention.

So what we are left with is the same thing I have been writing about for years. The digital reporting stuff is not about efficiency, technology, or anything particularly new or special. It’s about worker exploitation. It’s about moving the field away from one that has a strong support system to one that has no support system or where the support system is controlled by the business owners. It’s about getting you court reporters to believe “technology magic” is taking away your job so that you don’t fight to keep it. In reality, there was a genuine attempt to shift our NCRA that way with Plan B. That failed. We got NCRA 2.0. NCRA 2.0 balanced the budget and put its members before its corporate sponsors, which only US Legal corporate reps appear to have a problem with. Since the corporate powers that be couldn’t get NCRA to kill our industry for us, they threw a tantrum and started pretending NCRA didn’t exist.

Seems like conspiracy theory territory! Except it’s no theory. Check out Benjamin Jaffe. He writes a whole article this year about how digital is the answer to our shortage. But he’s affiliated with BlueLedge.

BlueLedge… sounds familiar.

And what is BlueLedge? A training provider for digital reporting that is basically pretending stenographers don’t exist.

Today we show appreciation to everyone except the bulk of the field, stenographers and voice writers.

To use the words of Dineen Squillante, we are being “out-marketed” rather than losing by any objective metric. The entire game on the digital reporting side has been exposed “we are going to push our version of the future. We don’t care who this hurts.” Guess what, stenographic reporters? Our nonprofits are better funded. Our social groups and support systems are bigger. Our students pools are larger and more invested. All we have left to do is acknowledge our own collective bigness and put our thumb on the scale. We need to start being very vocal about our industry and the projects we are working on.

To that end, if you have court reporting or captioning industry news and you’d like to get it reprinted, please contact me at ChristopherDay227@gmail.com. We can work out a deal where I can use the skills I have built to get your work some extra exposure, you can get your stuff in circulation, and I can use some of the profit to create more steno advertising rather than rely on the incredible generosity of donations. A price point of $200 to $400 per news event is the target. It’s calculated to keep this venture going strong and beat out the deceptive marketing from the digital camp. Even if your organization cannot meet the $200 cost, please reach out. A lack of publicity pushed our field down to where it is today. We can reverse direction there, but we won’t reverse that without a little time, effort, and togetherness.

I Figured Out Why ASR Is So Hard To Perfect

Yesterday I noted the racial disparities in automatic speech recognition study and how modern ASR did worse than the estimates provided in an old patent. I also noted humans are built to get better at just about anything they do. I just so happen to think about this court reporting and automatic speech recognition stuff a lot. It finally hit me why automatic speech recognition has made little real progress in the last 20 years: Language drift. The way that people speak and write English tends to change over time. Great example? I’m a gamer but I’m not entrenched in gamer culture. When someone about six years younger than me said “I’m getting bodied,” I had almost no clue what he was talking about. He was getting beat up by the other team! If you took a look at the video I linked, it explains how words and nomenclature changed drastically in English. Early English, to me, sounded much more French than anything we know today. If you go back only about 650 years, you reach a point where you are unlikely to understand the English language. Giraffes used to be camelopards. “Verily” used to be a word that people used. Even worse, there was no electricity to charge our stenotypes yet. To the chagrin of English purists, language drift appears inevitable. But this is also why we need real people studying and mastering English. It gives the rest of us a fighting chance. That’s why a computer program could never do for court reporting what Margie Wakeman Wells did. The computer would only regurgitate the same rules again and again, never reviewing or assessing new information unless a real person told it to.

What does that have to do with automatic speech recognition and court reporting? Our verbal and written languages are changing over time. That’s why literally now means figuratively, literally! ASR is based off of machine learning. It’s unlikely to ever perfect English because English is ever evolving and never perfect. Let’s say a company compiles enough data and creates an algorithm so perfect that it can accurately understand every single one of the billions of speakers on the planet today. Every single day after that moment, the speech patterns would change just a little bit and would be unrecognizable to the system someday. Of course, there is not a single country or corporation on the planet allocating enough money or personnel to gather that much data in the first place!

As a secondary matter, a system trained to understand all English dialects is inherently less likely to work than a system trained to understand only standard English as far as I know. I’ve written extensively about how bad ASR was with AAVE, as low as 25%. If we train a system for AAVE and data suited for that, there is a high likelihood that it would have worse accuracy for standard speakers. Gain ground on one type of speaker and lose ground on the other. The main way to compensate for that would be to have a trained operator use a specific voice profile to select the speaker. Guess what? That’s voice writing, something our industry figured out two decades ago.

This is not to say we shouldn’t continue to train and be at the top of our game. But my thoughts on AI are shifting from what they were. I used to believe there was some small possibility we would be replaced. I am coming to a place where I do not see us as replaceable under the current model of ASR without a trained operator in every seat. If we’re going to do that, stenography is the way to go!

Thank you to recent donors. My PayPal is open to receive donations for those that wish to contribute to the cost of running the blog. If you don’t want to give something for “nothing,” I also designed a Sad Iron Stenographer mug on Zazzle. The cheaper one, I will make about $0.90 for every sale. The more expensive one, I will make about $10 for every sale. They are both identical mugs, so buy whichever you find to be more appropriate. Nothing will make your Mondays happier than the sad iron stenographer, I guarantee* it.

*Product is not guaranteed to make Mondays happier.

Will Verbit Go Public in 2022?

Verbit’s constant attraction of investor money and recent acquisition of VITAC has set off a few optimistic waves in the media. Verbit bills itself as a unicorn, that is, a startup with a valuation of over $1 billion. Court reporters worried about that kind of classification should be aware that it means nothing. Fyre was set to be a unicorn, and yet Billy McFarland’s venture did little more than light Fyre’s investors’ money on fire and land him in jail. Theranos was valuated at $10 billion. It’s now worthless and Elizabeth Holmes may face jailtime. Powa was a unicorn with a valuation of $2 billion. That didn’t work out either.

I was shocked to come across an article that states that there are hopes of Verbit becoming a publicly-traded company by 2022. Ignoring things that the article gets incorrect, such as the firm being Manhattan-based (other articles state it’s an Israeli company), there are few reasons I can see for Verbit to become a publicly-traded company. Becoming publicly traded would allow investors to see the profit or loss. To give a great example, VIQ Solutions, parent of Net Transcripts, is publicly traded. It loses money every quarter despite reporting revenue in the millions. Companies that lose money aren’t attractive to investors and that’s why VIQ is about $7 a share today. Remaining private allows companies to continue a kind of “shell game” and operate despite being unprofitable. Based on Livne’s broadcasting of Verbit’s revenue and silence with regard to profit, I suspect Verbit would have the same exact problem, lots of revenue and little or no profit.

Going public would serve only one purpose in my view, an exit for current investors. Current investors could make a big deal about how it’s a company valuated at over $1 billion sitting “on top” of a market that’s allegedly worth $30 billion and watch as new investors dive in and take the bait. In the article above, Livne states the funding rounds were over-subscribed. That means they had a lot of money poured on them in their funding rounds that they did not need. If they’re over-funded, going public clearly wouldn’t provide the company with funds it needs — remember, it’s overfunded — again, it would give the current investors an exit. They get to cash out, some suckers get to buy in, and what happens after that is anybody’s guess. It remains a little strange to me that journalists buy the idea that a company that is maybe half a decade old has automatic speech recognition technology that is better than basically all the major players in the market. Those major players, according to one study, have accuracy levels between 25 and 80 percent.

My prediction is that Verbit will either fail to go public in 2022, or it will go public and take a hard fall sometime down the road after Livne and other investors have cashed out. I sincerely hope it’s the latter, because at least it would be a happy ending for the founder. Verbit finds itself in a precarious position of being a large target for the IRS. In the United States, one is a common law employee when the “employer” has direction and control. Verbit, according to the linked article, is using 30,000 freelancers to carry out its business model. If Verbit does not have direction and control, it cannot assure quality. If it does have direction and control, those are 30,000 employees it is failing to withhold taxes for. Like other companies that rely heavily on independent contractors, Verbit may soon find itself under attack from federal and state tax authorities where it conducts business or earns income. Anyone in the world can confidentially file a form 3949-A that puts Verbit under the spotlight, and that can only translate into headaches for the company and its investors. With that kind of exposure, I would not be investing in the company any time soon.

Even in a world where authorities turn a blind eye and there isn’t a decline in the company’s financial health, Verbit moving public could only give its competitors more information, which is something I’m looking forward to.

Meanwhile, back at Stenonymous HQ, an important meeting with my board of directors.

CART v Autocraption, A Strategic Overview For Captioners

With the news that Verbit has bought VITAC, there was some concern on steno social media. For a quick history on Verbit, it’s a company that claimed 99 percent accuracy in its series A funding. In its series B funding it was admitted that their technology would not replace the human. Succinctly, Verbit is a transcription company where its transcribers are assisted by machine learning voice recognition. Of course, this all has the side effect of demoralizing stenographers who sometimes think “wow, the technology really can do my job” because nobody has the time to be a walking encyclopedia.

But this idea that Verbit, a company started in 2016, figured out some super secret knowledge is not realistic. To put voice recognition into perspective, it’s estimated to be a market worth many billions of dollars. Microsoft is seeking to buy Nuance, the maker of Dragon, for about $20 billion. Microsoft has reportedly posted revenue over $40 billion and profit of over $15 billion. Verbit, by comparison, has raised “over $100 million” in investor money. It reports revenue in the millions and positive cash flow. Another company that reports revenue in the millions and positive cash flow? VIQ Solutions, parent of Net Transcripts. As described in a previous post, VIQ Solutions has reported millions in revenue and a positive cash flow since 2016. What’s missing? The income. Since 2016, the company hasn’t been profitable.

I might actually buy some stock, just in case.

Obviously, things can turn around, companies can go long periods of time without making a profit, bounce back, and be profitable. Companies can also go bankrupt and dissolve a la Circuit City or be restructured like JCPenney. The point is not to disparage companies on their financials, but to give stenographic captioners real perspective on the information they’re reading. So, when you see this blurb here, what comes to mind?

Critical Thinking 101

Hint. What’s not being mentioned? Profit. While this is not conclusive, the lack of any mention of profit tells me the cash flow and revenue is fine, but there are no big profits as of yet. Cash flow can come from many things, including investors, asset sales, and borrowing money. Most of us probably make in the ballpark of $50,000 to $100,000. Reading that a company raised $60 million, ostensibly to cut in on your job, can be pretty disheartening. Not so once you see that they’re a tiny fraction of the overall picture and that players far bigger than them have not taken your job despite working on the technology for decades.

Moreover, we have a consumer protection crisis on our hands. At least one study in 2020 showed that automatic speech recognition can be 25 to 80 percent accurate depending on who’s speaking. There are many caption advocates out there, such as Meryl Evans, trying to raise awareness on the importance of caption quality. The messaging is very clear: automatic captions are crap (autocraptions), they are often worse than having no captions, and a single wrong word can cause great confusion for someone relying on the captions. Just go see what people on Twitter are saying about #autocraptions. “#NoMoreCraptions. Thank you content creators that do not rely on them!”

Caring about captioning for people who need it makes your brand look good?
I wonder if a brand that looks good makes more money than one that doesn’t…

This isn’t something I’m making up. Anybody in any kind of captioning or transcription business agrees a human is required. Just check out Cielo24’s captioning guide and accuracy table.

Well, this is a little silly. Nobody advertises 60 percent accuracy. It just happens. Ask my boss.

If someone’s talking about an accuracy level of 95 percent or better, they’re talking about human-verified captions. If you, captioner, were not worried about Rev taking away your job with its alleged 50,000 transcribers, then you should not throw in the towel because of Verbit and its alleged 30,000 transcribers. We do not know how much of that is overlap. We do not know how much of that is “this transcriber transcribed for us once and is therefore part of our ‘team.'” We do not know how well transcription skills will fit into the fix-garbage-AI-transcription model. The low pay and mistreatment that comes with “working for” these types of companies is going to drive people away. Think of all the experiences you’ve had to get you to your skill level today. Would you have gotten there with lower compensation, or would you have simply moved on to something easier?

Verbit’s doing exceptionally well in its presentation. It makes claims that would cost quite a bit of time and/or money to disprove, and the results of any such investigation would be questioned by whoever it did not favor. It’s a very old game of making claims faster than they can be disproven and watching the fact checkers give you more press as they attempt to parse what’s true, partially true, and totally false. This doesn’t happen just in the captioning arena, it happens in legal reporting too.

$0/page. Remember what I said about no profit?
It doesn’t matter if they’re never profitable. It only matters that they can keep attracting investor money.

This seems like a terrifying list of capabilities. But, again, this is an old game. Watch how easy it is.

It took me 15 seconds to say six lies, one partial truth, and one actual truth. Many of you have known me for years. What was what? How long will it take you to figure out what was what? How long would it take you to prove to another person what’s true and what’s false? This is, in part, why it is easier for falsehoods to spread than the truth. This is why in court and in science, the person making a claim has to prove their claim. We have no such luxury in the business world. As an example, many years ago in the gaming industry Peter Molyneux got up on stage and demo’d Milo. He said it was real tech. Here was this dynamically interactive virtual boy who’d be able to understand gamers and their actions. We watched it with our own eyes. It was so cool. It was BS. It was very likely scripted. There was no such technology and there is no such technology today, over eleven years later. Do you think Peter, Microsoft, or anybody got in trouble for that? Nope. In fact, years later, he claimed “it was real, honest.”

Here’s the point: Legal reporters and captioners are going to be facing off with these claims for an indeterminate amount of time. These folks are going to be marketing to your clients hard. And I just showed you via the gaming industry that there are zero consequences for lying and that anything that is lied about can just be brushed up with another lie. There will be, more or less, two choices for every single one of you.

  1. Compete / Advocate. Start companies. Ally with deaf advocates.
  2. Watch it happen.

I have basically dedicated Stenonymous to providing facts, figures, and ways that stenographers can come out of the “sky is falling” mindset. But I’m one guy. I’m an official in New York. Science says there’s a good chance what we expect to happen will happen and that’s why I fight like hell to get all of you to expect us to win. That’s also why these companies repeat year after year that they’re going to automate away the jobs even when there’s zero merit or demand for an idea. You now see that companies can operate without making any profit, companies can lie, much bigger companies haven’t muscled in on your job, and that the giant Microsoft presumably looked at Verbit, looked at Nuance, and chose Nuance.

I’m not a neo-luddite. If the technology is that good, let it be that good. Let my job vanish. Fire me tomorrow. But facts are facts, and the fact is that tech sellers take the excellent work of brilliant programmers and say the tech is ready for prime time way before it is. They never bother to mention the drawbacks. Self-driving cars and trucks are on the way, don’t worry about whether it kills someone. Robots can do all these wonderful things, forget that injuries are up where they’re in heaviest use. Solar Roadways were going to solve the world’s energy problems but couldn’t generate any energy or be driven on. In our field, lives and important stakeholders are in danger. What happens when there’s a hurricane on the way and the AI captioning tells deaf people to drive towards danger?

Again, two choices, and I’m hoping stenographic captioners don’t watch it happen.

Aggressive Marketing — Growth or Flailing?

During our Court Reporting & Captioning Week 2021 there were a couple of press releases and some press releases dressed up as journalism all about digital recording, automatic speech recognition, and its accuracy and viability. There’s actually a lesson to be learned from businesses that continually promise without any regard for reality, so that’s what I’ll focus on today. I’ll start with this statement. We have a big, vibrant field of students and professionals where everyone that is actually involved in it, from the smallest one-woman reporting armies to the corporate giants, says technology will not replace the stenographic court reporter. Then we have the tech players who continuously talk about how their tech is 99 percent accurate, but can’t be bothered to sell it to us, and whose brilliant plan is to record and transcribe the testimony, something stenographers figured out how to do decades ago.

Steno students are out there getting a million views and worldwide audiences…
And Chris Day? He’s posting memes on the internet.

You know the formula. First we’ll compare this to an exaggerated event outside the industry, and then we’ll tie it right into our world. So let’s breeze briefly over Fyre Festival. To put it in very simple terms, Fyre Festival was an event where the CEO overpromised, underdelivered, and played “hide the ball” until the bitter end. Customers were lied to. Investors were lied to. Staff and construction members were lied to. It was a corporate fiasco propped up by disinformation, investor money, and cash flow games that ended with the CEO in prison and a whole lot of people owed a whole lot of money that they will, in all likelihood, never get paid. It was the story of a relative newcomer to the industry of music festivals saying they’d do it bigger and better. Sound familiar?

As for relative newcomers in the legal transcription or court reporting business, take your pick. Even ones that have been incorporated for a couple of decades really aren’t that impressive when you start holding up the magnifying glass. Take, for example, VIQ Solutions and its many subsidiaries:

I promise to explain if you promise to keep reading.

VIQ apparently trades OTC so it gives us a rare glimpse of financial information that we don’t get with a lot of private companies. Right off the bat, we can see some interesting stuff. $8 million in revenue with a negative net income and a positive cash flow. Positive cash flow means the money they have on hand is going up. Negative income means the company is losing money. How does a company lose money but continue to have cash on hand grow? Creditors and investors. When you see money coming in while the company is taking losses, it generally means that the company is borrowing the money or getting more cash from investors/shareholders. A company can continue on this way for as long as money keeps coming in. Companies can also use tricks similar to price dumping, and charge one client or project an excessive amount in order to fund losses on other projects. The amazing thing is that most companies won’t light up the same way Fyre did, they’ll just declare bankruptcy and move on. There’s not going to be a big “gotcha” parade or reckoning where anyone admits that stenographic court reporting is by far the superior business model.

This is juxtaposed against a situation where, for the individual stenographic reporter, you’re kind of stuck making whatever you make. If things go badly, bankruptcy is an option, but there’s never really an option to borrow money or receive investor money for decades while you figure it out. Seeing all these ostensible giants enter the field can be a bit intimidating or confusing. But any time you see these staggering tech reveals wrapped up in a paid-for press release, I urge you to remember Fyre, remember VIQ, and remember that no matter what that revenue or cash flow looks like, you may not have access to the information that would tell you how the company is really doing.

This also leads to a very bright future for steno entrepreneurs. As we learn the game, we can pass it along to each other. When Stenovate landed its first big investor, I talked about that. Court reporting and its attached services, in the way we know them and love them, are an extremely stable, winning investment. Think about it. Many of us, when we begin down this road, spend up to $2,000 on a student machine and up to $9,000 on a professional machine and software. That $11,000 sinkhole, coupled with student loan debt, grows into stable, positive income. So what’s stopping any stenographic court reporting firm from getting out there and educating investors on our field? The time and drive to do it. Maybe for some people, they just haven’t had that idea yet. But that’s where we’re headed. I have little doubt that if we compete, we will win. But we have to get people in that mindset. So if you know somebody with that entrepreneurial spirit, maybe pass them this post and get them thinking about whether they’d like to seek investors to grow their firm and reach. Business 101 is that a dollar today is more valuable than a dollar tomorrow. That means our field can be extremely attractive to value investors and be a safe haven from the gambling money being supplied to “tech’s” habitual promisors.

Know a great reporting or captioning firm that needs a spotlight? Feel free to write me or comment about them below. I’ll start us off. Steno Captions, LLC launched off recently without doing the investor dance. That’s the kind of promise this field has. I wish them a lot of luck and success in managing clients and training writers.

Trolls and You

We try to keep political stuff from being published here unless it’s educational, about court reporting, or about the industry. I’ve been pretty good about this. Commentators have been great about it. The occasional guest writer has been amazing with it. This topic touches with politics, but it’s not strictly political, so it should be fun to learn about.

It’s established that the United Kingdom, United States, China, Russia and several other countries view the internet as, more or less, another theater of war. They’ve had operatives and people hired to create fake posts, false comments, and advance the interests and ideas of the government. The prices reported? Eight dollars for a social media post, $100 for ten comments, and $65 for contacting a media source. In the case of China, they’re reportedly working for less than a dollar. If the host country allows it, you have trolls for hire.

So in the context of stenography and the court reporting industry, seems like whenever we get into the news, there are regular comments from regular people, such as “why not just record it?” Typical question. Anyone would ask this question. There are fun comments like “Christopher Day the stenographer looks like he belongs on an episode of Jeopardy.” Then there are comments that go above and beyond that. They make claims like — well, just take a look.

“…I gonna tell you that in modern technology we can record something like court testimony for hundreds of years back very easily…” “…the technology is smarter every single second…” “…if you store data in the digital format we can use an AI to extract the word from the voice in the data, it will be very accurate so much so the stenographer loses their jobs.” Wow! Lose our jobs? I felt that in my heart! Almost like it was designed to hurt a stenographer’s feelings. Right?

We can store the video for hundreds of years? Maybe. But consider that text files, no matter what way you swing it, are ten times smaller than audio files. They can be thousands of times smaller than video files. Take whatever your local court is paying for storage today and multiply that by 8,000. Unless we want a court system that is funded by advertisements a la Youtube, the taxpayer will be forced to cough up much more money than they are today. That’s just storing stuff.

The technology is getting smarter every second? No, not really. Whenever it’s analyzed by anybody who isn’t selling it, it’s actually pretty dumb and has been that way for a while. Take Wade Roush’s May 2020 article in the Scientific American (pg 24). “But accuracy is another matter. In 2016 a team at Microsoft Research announced that it had trained its machine-learning algorithms to transcribe speech from a standard corpus of recordings with record-high 94 percent accuracy. Professional human transcriptionists performed no better than the program in Microsoft’s tests, which led media outlets to celebrate the arrival of ‘parity’ between humans and software in speech recognition.”

“…And four years after that breakthrough, services such as Temi still claim no better than 95 percent — and then only for recordings of clear, unaccented speech.” Roush concludes, in part, “ASR systems may never reach 100 percent accuracy…” So technology isn’t getting smarter every second. It’s not even getting smarter every half decade at this point.

“…we can use an AI to extract the word from the voice in the data…” This technology exists, kind of, but perfecting it would be like perfecting speech recognition. Nobody’s watching 500 hours of video to see if it accurately returns every instance of a word. Ultimately, you’re paying for the computer’s best guess. Sometimes that’ll be pretty good. Sometimes you won’t find the droid you’re looking for.

Conclusion? This person’s probably not in the media transcoding industry, probably doesn’t know what they’re talking about, and is in all likelihood a troll. Were they paid to make that comment? We don’t know. But I think it’s time to realize that marketplaces are ripe for deception and propaganda. So when you see especially mean, hateful, targeted comments, understand that there’s some chance that the person writing the comment doesn’t live in the same country as you and doesn’t actually care about the topic they’re writing about. There’s some chance that person was paid to spread an opinion or an idea. Realizing this gives us power to question what these folks are saying and be agents of truth in these online communities. Always ignoring trolling leads to trolling leading the conversation. So dropping the occasional polite counterview when you see an obvious troll can make a real impact on perception. The positive perception of consumers and the public is what keeps steno in business.

The best part of all this? You can rest easier knowing some of those hateful things you see online about issues you care about are just hired thugs trying to divide us. If a comment is designed to hurt you, you might just be talking to a Russian operative.

Addendum:

I understand readers will be met with the Scientific American paywall. I would open myself up to copyright problems to display the entire article here. If you’d like to speak out against the abject tyranny of paywalls, give me money! I’m kidding.

What Verbit Leadership Needs To Know

I had a lot of fun writing the Verbit investors article. But the more I explore opinions and ideas outside our steno social circles, the more I see that most people totally don’t get stenographers or the work we put in. A lot of us have had sleepless nights trying to get a daily out, time lost for ourselves or our families trying to do the job we signed up for, or some amount of stress from someone involved with the proceeding being unhelpful or antagonistic. It happens, we take it in stride, and we make the job look easy. So it doesn’t surprise me very much when people say “why not just record it?” It doesn’t surprise me that investors threw money into the idea that technology could disrupt the court reporting market. But I can only hope that proponents of digital really take the time to understand and step back from the cliff they’re being pushed towards.

For this exercise, we’re going to be exploring Verbit’s own materials. They recently circulated a graphic that showed the “penetration” of digital into the court reporting market. It shows 5 to 10 percent of the deposition market taken by digital, and 65 to 75 percent of the court market taken by digital. It also notes that only 25 to 35 percent of courts are digitally transcribed. I take this to mean that while they have 75 percent of the “court market,” they only transcribe about 25 percent of it. This is a massive problem. So the technology, when it’s not breaking down in the middle of court (29:20), is ready to record all these proceedings. But you only have the capacity to transcribe about a third of that. So in this magical world where suddenly you have every deposition, EUO, and court proceeding, where are you going to get all of these people? We’re talking about multiplying your current workforce by 28 assuming that every person you hire is as efficient as a stenographer. And the math shows that every stenographer is about as efficient as 2 to 6 transcribers. So we’re really talking about multiplying your current workforce by 56 to 168 times, or just creating larger backlogs than exist today. By not using stenographers, Verbit and digital proponents are setting themselves up for an epic headache.

Of course, this is met with, “well, there’s a stenographer shortage.” But what you have to understand is that we’ve known that for seven years now. All kinds of things have happened since then. You’ve got Project Steno, Open Steno, StenoKey, A to Z, Allison Hall reportedly getting over a dozen school programs going. Then you have lots of people just out there promoting or talking about the field through podcasts, TV, and other news. Showcasing the shortage and stenography has brought renewed interest in this field, and we are on track to solve this. Again, under the current plan, you would need as many as 60,000 transcribers just to fill our gap, and the turnover will probably be high because the plan promotes using a workforce that does not require a lot of training. So if you’re talking about training and retraining 60,000 people again and again over the next decade, I am quite sure you can find 10,000 or so people who want to be stenographic court reporters.

Look, I get it, nobody goes into business without being an optimist. But trying to upend a field with technology that doesn’t exist yet is just a frightening waste of investor money. How come when you sell ASR, it’s 99 percent accurate, but when Stanford studies the ASR from the largest companies in the world, it’s 60 to 80 percent accurate? How come when you sell digital it’s allegedly cheaper and better, but when it’s looked at objectively it’s more expensive and comes with “numerous gaps and missing testimony?” These are the burning questions you are faced with. There’s an objectively easier way of partnering with and hiring stenographers. If you don’t, you’re looking at filling a gap of 10,000 with 60,000 people, or multiplying the current transcription workforce of 50,000 by 56 (2.8 million). In a world of just numbers, this sounds great. Three million jobs? Who wouldn’t want that? But not far into this experiment you’ll find that people don’t grow on trees and the price of the labor will skyrocket unless you offshore all of the work. What happens when attorneys catch onto the fact that everything is being offshored and start challenging transcripts? Does anyone believe that someone in Manila is going to honor subpoenas from New York? Again, epic headache.

So if I could get just one message out to Verbit leadership and all the people begging for us to “just accept technology,” it would be to really re-examine your numbers and your tech. The people under you are going to tell you that a new breakthrough is just around the corner, that things are going well, and that you shouldn’t worry. But you should worry, because you very well might find yourself a pariah in your industry like Peter Molyneux ended up in his. If you’re not familiar, Peter became famous for promising without delivering. One of the most prominent examples of this was 2009 E3, where he stood up on stage and introduced Milo. This tech was going to be interactive. It was going to sense what you were doing and respond to it. It turns out it was heavily scripted, the technology did not and still does not exist to do what was being talked about and presented to consumers. Now, anyone with a bit of sense doesn’t listen to Peter.

If the ASR tech worked, why not sell it to us at 10,000 a pop multiplied by the 25,000 stenographers in your graphic and walk away with a cool 250 million dollars? It does what we do, right? So why aren’t we using it? Why aren’t you marketing it to us? It’s got to be a hell of a lot easier to convince 25,000 stenographers than it is to convince 1.3 million lawyers. Sooner or later, Legal Tech News and all the other news people are going to pick up on the fact that what you are selling is hype and hope. So, again, consider a change of direction. Stop propping up STTI, shoot some money over to the organizations that promote stenography, and partner up with steno. You’d be absolutely amazed how short people’s memories are when you’re not advocating for their jobs to be replaced with inferior tech. Take it from somebody who’s done the sleepless nights and endless hours in front of a monitor transcribing, this business isn’t easy. But if you trust stenographers, we’re going to keep making it look easy, and we’re going to make every pro-steno company a lot of money.

What Verbit Investors Need To Know

I had touched pretty gently on Verbit when its series A funding came in at $23 million. The series B funding is in at about $31 million earlier this year. Now Verbit’s announced a strategic partnership with the STI and professional flip flopper, Jim Cudahy. Migliore & Associates already came out with the hard truth of what this means: ASR doesn’t make the cut for the production of legal transcripts without a qualified court reporter no matter what you name it, NLP, ASR, AI, computer magic, automated transcription.

Do I come off as angry? I am angry. I’m angry that investors are being led down a path of burning capital where there’s just not a bright future. When the series A funding was happening, Verbit used words like automated, “save an enormous amount of manual labor.” “Adaptive speech recognition” with over 99 percent accuracy. Series B is out. They “would not take the human transcriber out,” “the AI will enhance the human.” So investors are fundamentally paying millions of dollars so that they can be another Rev. I doubt very much that that’s what was sold to investors. I don’t think anybody would be putting down millions on that.

Then the partnership with STI? A complete joke. I have already gone into how, without any doubt, stenographers and NCRA are by far the best equipped to deal with the court reporter shortage. AAERT and the STI just don’t have the funding, infrastructure, or experience to tackle the problem, and it shows in their data. By their estimates, court reporting companies stand to save $250,000 over the next decade by adopting digital tools. First, I would love to know if this is individual savings or cumulative. We don’t know because there are no sources linked or cited. If this is cumulative, it’s embarrassing that they would even post that. That would mean 25,000 in savings a year across all companies. If that’s the projected individual savings per company, only slightly less embarrassing. That’s less than the average annual salary of a single court reporter. This may come as a shock to Jim Cudahy, but court reporting companies adopted digital tools throughout digital’s birth in the 70s and into the 80s and 90s. Stenographers are already a part of the Information Age, utilize AI, and produce quality records daily. The idea that investors are going to dump $50 million into “technology” expected to save $250,000 over 10 years and expect a return is terrifying. “Most courts are digital,” again, assuming everything they have to say is true, and yet judicial candidates show a preference for stenographic court reporters and returning them to courtrooms. The growth here is in stenographers, stenography jobs, and stenography schools, and Verbit’s current leadership is missing this boat completely.

Let’s just tell it like it is. When a grassroots-funded stenography blog can give you some pretty solid reasons you’re backing the wrong horse, it’s time to give investors nothing less than what they deserve. Open up a Steno Department, throw down some money on us, and we will make sure you’ve got real and steady returns. Verbit, with proper leadership from Tom Livne, can still save the day. Just not with this bait and switch technology-to-transcription model that amounts to little more than a repackaging of old tech. The only other viable alternative I see is buying this blog for a good $8 million and hoping investors don’t see it before then. Not a difficult decision. Come on over to the winning team. Vote for sten!

July 18, 2021 Addendum:

I reread this article for the first time in a while and I feel I did an inadequate job of explaining just how pathetic the cost savings promoted were. I took to social media to spread the word, and I am copying and pasting what I had to say below.

“I’m slowly reconstructing the table of contents on my blog, and I came across an old article I did on Verbit. In that article, it mentioned a blurb by STTI that, using AAERT info, estimated $250,000 in savings over a decade for companies that switched to digital tools.
The reason I’m bringing it up again is this is a time where a lot of court reporters are kind of concerned. “Is this stuff better than I am?” And I pointed out in the article how I think some $50 million was sunk into Verbit at that point. $250,000 over a decade breaks down to $25,000 a year. So even if it’s assumed that that information is completely factual and that the savings is for every individual company in the field and NOT cumulative across the industry, they were advertising savings equivalent to less than the average salary of a single court reporter.
Is this stuff better than you? They need to sink millions of dollars into it to “maybe perhaps” save $25,000 a year. Remember, these are companies that boast millions in revenue. I think you have your answer.
And for anybody that doesn’t, I have a handy chart here.
If they make $1 million, they save 2.50%
If they make $2 million, they save 1.25%
If they make $3 million, they save 0.83%
If they make $4 million, they save 0.63%
If they make $5 million, they save 0.50%
If they make $6 million, they save 0.42%
If they make $7 million, they save 0.36%
If they make $8 million, they save 0.31%
To put this into perspective, a company like VIQ Solutions, parent of Net Transcripts, that posts something like $8 million a quarter (not profitable), would save 0.08%.
A company like Veritext, which Owler claims has revenue in the $400 million ballpark, would save 0.007%
Just to put some more perspective on that, if Stenograph were to offer you 0.007% savings on the purchase of approximately $4,000 CaseCAT, you would save $0.28. ($100 at 2.50%)
Would you pay anyone millions of dollars to “maybe perhaps” save 0.007% to 2.50%?
This situation is very good for us, but we do need more reporters, so in this coming school year, if you can make a visit to your local high school, please do.”

Buying Hype

Seems like every day now there’s a new article talking about the great advances of AI transcription. Notice in what I just linked, the author is “Wire Contributor,” which to me means that it’s probably a Trint employee. The September 2019 article goes on to link an April 2017 article where the Wire apparently said something they did was unprecedented.

If you’re not looking at dates and glancing over it, it looks like AI transcription is making leaps and bounds. It’s coming. Their app is to be released at the end of 2019! What will we do? I am here to hopefully get everyone thinking critically. Why are these articles always sporting a technology that’s critically acclaimed but not ready to be publicly released? Because it’s a pitch. It’s an effort to get more investors. It’s a bid to get more people to throw money at it.

Not to get too controversial, but I’ve long watched a YouTuber scientist named ThunderF00t (Phil Mason). He’s made many videos to raise consumer awareness on products including inventions like the Free Electric, Solar Roadways, Zero Breeze, Fontus. All of these amazing things have a common theme: They sound cool. The media doesn’t understand the concepts behind them. Their creators make positive claims about them. These inventions have had millions of dollars put into them only for kickstarters and stakeholders to be let down. This is despite walls of positive press from various sites and media forums.

What can we learn? Sellers sell. That’s what they do. When there’s millions of dollars to be made, does the seller really care if the product only meets 90, 80, or 70 percent of the buyer’s needs? Will most buyers spend more time and money holding the seller accountable, or will they eat the loss or attempt to justify the purchase to themselves? That’s why you see claim after claim and never a bad word unless you have colossal levels of fraud, like Theranos. What else can we learn? These things can raise millions of dollars and never hurt a market, Solar Roadways raised over a million dollars and never threatened existing energy companies.

Buying hype can only serve to dampen our morale and make us cede market share. It can only serve to silence us. You don’t have to be a computer scientist to investigate claims about computer science. Let’s start selling facts and raising consumer awareness. If nothing else, remember: If their product worked, you would be using it.

Can Verbit Replace Verbatim?

I had had some thoughts with regard to AI and stenography. I stand by what I said there. Verbit has been, according to online commentators, soliciting people’s business and offering to assist with their workload. There are even some who have said — though I have not seen documentary proof of this — that Veritext is using Verbit or a similar process for their digital reporters. Succinctly, running the audio through a computer program and having a human fix up what the computer spits out. Oddly enough, sounds a lot like what we do when we are taking down every word on a stenotype these days.

The bottom line is these companies are hungry for money. They need revenue to prove to their investors that they are a good investment. Verbit reportedly raised $23 million. Trint reportedly raised at least 150 million euros, or 168 million dollars. That should give you an idea of just how big of an expense it is — in their estimation — to create a program to do what we already do.

When we talk about solving problems, and specifically solving problems with AI and computers, two of the largest jumps in technology are machine learning and modeling the human brain. Modeling the human brain seems an arduous task that is difficult to do on modern hardware. Machine learning is giving the computer training data, and then having the computer make “educated” guesses based on the training data.

So why bring this up again? Well, to caution all of us. The simple truth is the more training data that you give these folks, meaning the more audio files they have that show the computer what we do, the more they’ll be able to sculpt the program. If you make the business decision to help them in that way, that’s fine. But you know what? Demand a premium! There are hundreds of millions of dollars involved in developing these computer programs right now. They should probably be paying YOU to transcribe YOUR work, because quite frankly, if they perfect the program, you might be out of business. If they haven’t yet perfected the program, you’re helping them perfect it! Sounds like a premium service to me.

So make sure everybody out there knows: They don’t want your business, they need it, and they should probably be paying you.