Why Active Readback’s No Steno Man is Wrong

Some have seen this video. I got around to it. I have honest reservations about giving someone like him more press and attention, but then, my audience outnumbers him by a lot, so if you all have the data, it’s a force multiplier and family he doesn’t have. You can tell Readback is terrified of us because they don’t have the guts to leave the comments on and get called out on their lies. Let’s take advantage of their fear.

He likens court reporting to medical transcription. I made a short TikTok on that. I’ve spoken to Mitch Li from Take Medicine Back. Emergency room physicians are being pushed out for nurse practitioners in the same way big money is trying to push us out for digital. Guess what? The doctors largely don’t like that their scribes were pushed out, and the quality of medical transcription has been suffering because of its lean to automation. As a matter of fact, as a young reporter, I was getting requests to get involved with medical transcription (MT). That was only ten years ago. Nowadays the Association for Health Documentation Integrity says there’s a transcriber shortage.

Wow, sounds like the exact excuse they’ll use in court reporting.

It’s so bad that they STILL want to attract court reporters to do medical transcription. So how good was automation for MT anyway?

“Automation is so wonderful, please God send the court reporters to save us.”

Well, isn’t it interesting that jerks like no-steno man (NSM) created problems in an industry that they didn’t bother to stick around and solve? “Oh, people are dying from the reckless automation of something important? Exit stage left. Time to try court reporting!” Guess what? We’re not medical transcriptionists, and we’re not letting you destroy our industry without a fight, you jackalope.

Ultimately, I decided to eviscerate your puffery with cold, hard, facts.

His entire line about automating medical transcription and making it cheaper is fluff. What good is cheap, useless, garbage? And make no mistake that automatic speech recognition, natural language processing, artificial intelligence, or whatever fancy label we want to put on it, is just that. The objective science that exists today says that it’s 25 to 80% accurate from all the major players. When was the last time you had a 20% untran and called yourself “neartime?” This also kills his argument about the technology being revolutionary. He’s comparing our 99% real-world accuracy rating to AI’s 80-at-best average accuracy and calling it revolutionary. This is more like if Google maps led you the wrong way down a one-way street about 20% of the time. It’s not acceptable and we shouldn’t be forced to pretend that it is. If they’re not using full automation, they’re using human transcribers, and that means there are zero efficiency gains from a manpower perspective. This is a hide-the-ball trick of saying technology is better than it actually is to fool investors and consumers. It only fools people who have not seen the trick before.

Next strawman argument by the liar: Court reporting costs have gone up. In actuality, we’re working for less than we were 30 years ago adjusted for inflation. Let’s call this out for what it is, a ploy to get court reporters scared of demanding the rates and pay that they deserve. Less money in our wallets means less money for us to spend on our associations to fight for us. The push to get court reporters to accept less has been largely successful in the last decade, and it has been driven by low-intelligence businesspeople that look at the labor expense as something to be cut no matter who it hurts. There are over a million lawyers in the United States and about 30,000 of us. We’re a rare commodity and need to start acting like it — keeping pricing reasonable, but not abusively low.

Notably, NSM refers to the democratization of technology and talks a good game about how realtime is too expensive for the little guys to afford. Anir Dutta of Stenograph also referred to the democratization of technology in the Speech-to-Text Institute podcast. What does this tell us? This is a coordinated buzzword in whatever business circle they’re all playing in. They’re using democracy as transfer propaganda. Who doesn’t like the sound of democratization in a free society like the United States? This ignores that in actuality adopting his active reporting model would likely hurt democracy in the form of disproportionately hurting the quality of black and minority speakers’ records. We have put immense effort into ensuring everyone has an equal record. Are we willing, as a field, to allow technological snake oil to kill the equality we stand for every day in every proceeding?

The puffery in the advertising is on full display:

Active Readback gets several things wrong in their advertising.

This looks intimidating to a stenographic court reporter that doesn’t grill it a bit. First, questioning our accuracy. How dare they? I just gave the science. They’re not guaranteed accuracy. Nobody can guarantee accuracy. What happens if a word is wrong? Does everyone get the service for free? That would be a guarantee. Tellingly, they make no such promise. Audio available? Stenographers have been using audio for years. It’s called asking nicely or getting a subpoena. Lawyers don’t want to re-listen to depositions anyway, that’s why they hire us. Exhibit handling, stenographers literally led the way and trained clients on that after COVID. The rest of it, hey, we can give all that away for free too, but we like our businesses to be profitable instead of losing $13 million a year like VIQ Solutions. We need profitable businesses so that we can continue to provide the same great service we have for over half a century. NSM’s investors must have their mouths agape. He’s not charging what the market can bear, and that’s a recipe for low returns and disaster in business. I’m pretty sure I learned that in business 101. What’s this guy’s excuse?

The low, flat rate that he talks about in the presentation isn’t really that low, which tells me that this process isn’t automated. Just to break it down, there are stenographers working for less than $4 per page in New York City right now. Assuming 60 pages an hour, that’s $480 for two hours. Lawyers can get the tried and tested stenography for a little bit more than the brand new maybe-this-works-maybe-it-doesn’t Active BS. This isn’t a sell, it’s an embarrassment.

“Active Readback, charging 72% of what a stenographer charges for half the quality, guaranteed.” (Parody)

Final point I’ll address is his mention about the shortage and how the stenotype is “hard on its operators.” We’ve been cremating our shortage despite some of the biggest names in the business, Veritext and US Legal Support, actively sabotaging us. Additionally, our technology is a lot easier on the hands than the Mechanical Turk game that Active and others are probably playing. Mechanical Turk lets services crowdsource transcribers. When people buy into active reporting, they’re likely buying into inefficiency and hurting workers.

Stenographers, I cannot stress this enough: Hold your ground. Our industry is worth $3 billion and we control most of that. The people that are trying to convince you to give up and run away are not doing so out of the kindness of their heart. These are liars, nothing more. Now that I’ve peeled back the curtain and exposed some of the flaws, I hope you will follow the Protect Your Record Project motto of “connect, educate, advocate.” I hope you will follow the STRONG motto of “we are strongest together.” I hope that if you found this blog post helpful, you will take the time to donate below.

I also hope that Active Readback will come on here and comment. We do not cower behind censorship like them. Perhaps that is all the world needs to see to know whose version of events is truest.

The more money I make from my media, the harder I can fight.

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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.