With a wave of recent tech layoffs, it seems unlikely the tech giants will have a massive tech breakthrough. They’re preparing for tough times, which signals to me they’re probably not expecting anything revolutionary. According to some sources, as many as 73,000 tech workers have been laid off this year.
As reported by Fortune and Kevin Kelleher, Deloitte has released a report. A survey of 2,620 executives in 13 countries found 94% of respondents considered AI critical to success in the coming five years. Yet only about 50% of solutions were considered high achieving, leaving about 50% of solutions low achieving.
The article does state that global spending on AI is set to nearly double from $33 billion in 2021 to $64 billion in 2025, but this does not seem to comport with the dropping interest in AI investment reported. Only 76% of respondents plan to boost AI investments, down from 85% a year ago. As I see it, there are two possible futures. Either executives will take a step back and realize that somewhere between half and 80% of these projects are not working out, or they’ll continue down the path of burning money on what’s essentially a hand of blackjack with a nice side bet. For those that don’t gamble, that’s “okay odds of winning something with a very small chance of making a lot of money.”
Of course, this is all about AI generally. Automatic speech recognition (ASR) or natural language processing (NLP) is the subset of AI that deals with or theoretically threatens our profession, and if regular AI solutions are not working out, something as complex as ASR doesn’t seem like it’ll be perfected any time soon.
We are in a bad time for factual information. Some sources claim 15 to 30% of market research data is fraudulent. I can’t help but wonder if the ballooning estimates on market size for AI and ASR are wishful thinking put out there to get investors and decision makers to part with their money and avoid another AI winter. After all, it looks attractive to say speech recognition will grow from $11 billion in 2022 to $49 billion in 2029, and it looks attractive to say the AI market will grow to $1.3 trillion by 2029. “Buy in now!” But if half the solutions are low achieving, aren’t they throwing half of that trillion in the trash? And isn’t it a little odd to forecast that an industry will miraculously grow from $64 billion in 2025 to $1.3 trillion in 2029? Some of the fastest-growing industries are around 12% growth. Meanwhile they’re talking about something like 500% growth every year for 4 years. I know jobs don’t necessarily relate to revenue/profit, and I accept these figures are from different sources and therefore may be calculated differently, but how is such explosive growth expected to take place without adding jobs? Were the thousands of workers just laid off not contributing to the growth? Would the growth not slow with such future uncertainty? The AI industry is set for 500% growth but the world GDP is something like 10% growth in a great year?
This also calls into question the market research and data in our field. Will our “sten tech” companies’ AI ventures be successful? Could numbers be played with to get court reporting consumers to buy into new tech ideas? Could the numbers be played with to make court reporting firms more attractive to private equity buyers? I’m already certain they’re being played with to sell digital court reporting.
I will continue to document the stats. Let this serve as a reminder that we need to be careful what stats we accept in our minds as true and always be open to new information. As always, I invite readers to share comments, contrary ideas, or even correct me. What do you think?
Students that take and complete the NCRA A to Z program will now be provided two years of Eclipse student software and support.
Honestly, this is a colossal step in the right direction. I feel we suffer from a lack of teamwork on the steno side of the steno v digital debate. That collaboration is incredibly important. As shown by NCRA and Advantage here, it opens up new opportunities.
Advantage and other steno software and hardware vendors may find themselves in a great position to ride the circumstances set in motion by myself and the Open Steno community. Open Steno has introduced stenography to well over a thousand people and continues to raise a community of people that want to learn steno, including transcribers. Meanwhile I have set the stage and made the case that stenographer pay is too low in some markets. It follows that transcriber pay is too low in some markets and will have transcribers looking for a way to increase their efficiency. Who better to help than stenography software and hardware vendors? All during a time when workers across the country are realizing their value and asking for it. Conditions are ripe for the strengthening and reimagining of our timeless profession. It’s exciting to witness and be a part of, and today I can honestly say I’m proud to be an NCRA member and Advantage customer.
To the lawyers and support staff reading, all you really need to know is that your consumer choice is under attack. Available data says consumer preference is solidly for stenographers and/or voice writers.
In spite of this, a small number of court reporting firms and the nonprofit Speech-to-Text Institute have published bad data to get you to believe stenographers are not available despite there being a free national directory of stenographers. This bad data is then pushed by “reporters” like Victoria Hudgins and the Legaltech News outfit, whose primary purpose is to convince you to buy into their BS. You all have the power to fight against this attack on your consumer choice by sharing this blog with your colleagues. I have been a stenographic court reporter for the last twelve years. All I know is how to make an accurate record. With that, let’s set the record straight:
Victoria Hudgins has come up in my blog before. I wrote to her about some inaccuracies or issues with her past articles back when I believed she was an honest analyst or journalist. I let her know that Stenograph used a stock photo to represent its offices in one of the articles, and to this day the article still says “Stenograph offices” under the picture. In short, she does not seem to care about the accuracy of what is published with her name on it.
Now she’s come out with this article in Legaltech News. “There’s Fewer Small Court Reporting Agencies — But Don’t Blame Technology for That.” It’s very easy to see what’s happened. The shortage claims are falling apart, and the next move is for the private equity brigade (MAGNA, Veritext, and US Legal) to pivot to “we can provide investment in technology that small shops cannot.” As told by stenographer social media, that’s not even true, with small firm owners writing things like they have been proudly providing for all of their clients’ needs since the 90s.
This pivot is an admission that Veritext knows we can’t be beat. The big companies are having a hard time convincing stenographers and consumers the shortage cannot be solved, so it’s onto the next spin. They’re having that hard time because the propaganda they’re using is mathematically unsound. For example, in the linked JD Supra article, U.S. Legal Support uses an equation where we would have negative stenographers in about 30 years. That can’t happen if we’re getting new stenographers every year. How did the company fail to adjust for that? It’s not information being given, it’s an agenda being pushed.
U.S. Legal Support was giving off the same vibes just last week as far as not being able to defeat the stenographic legion. It’s actually kind of comical. The lack of serious and sustained antitrust enforcement for the last 40 years has caused the corporate types to realize we are a nation of unenforced laws. So we’re in a weird game of incongruence where the corporate types have been blatantly violating the law, and the workforce, namely stenographers, have been conditioning themselves to believe that even the tiniest appearance of antitrust infraction must be avoided at all costs, even to the point that our trade associations do not or did not collect and publish rate data despite being entitled to.
As for Hudgins herself, I would be shocked to learn she’s not taking money under the table. She ignored my comments in the past. She doesn’t seem to do any digging beyond getting a story to sound tech friendly. It’s all a media game of getting lawyers to buy into the hot new thing. It’s a hearts and minds game of getting people to repeat the same useless drivel so that everyone starts to believe it, because once people believe something, they hold onto that belief thanks to confirmation bias and/or post-purchase rationalization. Maybe that’s all Legaltech News itself actually is, a marketing piece to convince lawyers to buy, buy, buy into the next “it.” But if I were a lawyer, I’d be mad as hell when I figured that out that something labeled as news was being heavily skewed to influence me and my business. I’d be mad that the data and news showing “technology” would hurt my clients was being swept under the rug and routinely ignored. After all, Hudgins writes about the stenographer shortage woes.
But Hudgins doesn’t bother to mention the undeniable fact that there’s a debate about the shortage where, as I am quoted saying, 16% of all depositions in this country would be going uncovered if the shortage was as bad as claimed. That’s not something we are seeing anywhere in the country, not even in California, where the shortage was forecasted years ago to be far worse than anywhere else in the country. Hudgins doesn’t bother to mention that the shortage numbers have never been adjusted to account for increased recruitment over the last decade. Hudgins doesn’t bother to give facts, so I have no problem putting it out there: Victoria Hudgins is a liar by omission and Legaltech News seems all too happy to host the incomplete reporting. So says the largest commercial blog in the court reporting industry, Christopher Day, Stenonymous, which again, somehow flies under Hudgins’ radar.
The explosion in popularity came after I came forward about the dishonesty and pricing games permeating my field. I have risked my entire professional career to tell the truth. Lawyers, paralegals, and court reporters simply respect that.
Just for the record, stenographers utilize a lot of technology. Just about every single one of us invests a ballpark of $5,000 on a stenotype and a ballpark of $4,000 in software. The software has the capability to take our notes and stream them just about anywhere in the world with an internet connection. This idea that stenographers are still running old school with the paper tape manual machines is a fiction promulgated by propagandists. That’s in the ballpark of a $252 million investment in technology that the current workforce has made and not counting a single stenographer that is no longer working. How much money are the bigger companies saying they’ve invested directly on hardware and software?
Since it’s a media game, I’m ready to play. I’m going to advertise this on Facebook to the tune of $100 today. If you’d like to join me in an amount of your choosing, please head over to the home page at Stenonymous.com and use the donation box. All of my campaigns are public on the Stenonymous page and/or my Twitter, so you can see the kinds of comments we’ve gotten on past campaigns.
Apparently even Victoria agrees because she liked my retweet on this.
You can now purchase StenoKeyboards products through my affiliate link. If you do, send me a picture with your product(s), a receipt, and your preferred rebate method, and I will give you 2% of your sale price back by PayPal, Zelle, or Venmo. This rebate is being offered by me as an incentive to use my affiliate link and is not backed by StenoKeyboards.
*Offer is only good for as long as my affiliate link is active.
Stenograph has been in hot water because of its degradation of quality and service. This led to a boycott of the company by stenographers across the country, a boycott which continues to this day. As stated in my Oh My update, Stenograph’s push into automatic speech recognition is not being done properly. It’s being sold as a productivity boost, but available science says AI/ASR is a productivity killer. Anir Dutta, Stenograph’s embattled president, doesn’t care. He ignored a personal letter from me alerting him to these issues.
As if these issues were not enough, Stenograph promised to meet with Texas Court Reporters Association members and address their concerns. The company then retracted its agreement and set up its own meeting, likely to confuse consumers and attempt to manipulate us. TCRA addressed Stenograph’s behavior as follows:
Then, perhaps under the delusion that stenographers are stupid, Stenograph decided to hold its own meeting:
This is a bait and switch. This behavior is disgusting and in my opinion we shouldn’t condone it as a field. It’s very clear what’s happening. Stenograph does not have an answer for why it is requiring stenographers to get releases for data it wants to steal from us or the liability it wants to be put on us, as per its licensing agreement:
Since Stenograph doesn’t have an answer, it doesn’t want to be in a position where that’s revealed. Again, I know factually that there are great people that work for the company and great software trainers for the software. That does not excuse what they’re doing. They’re barreling into automatic speech recognition in a haphazard, might-makes-right, and manipulative way that should give us all pause. We are the profession of blatant honesty. You say it, we write it. Can we not agree that this is not a direction we want a company, one that is practically our namesake, to take?
I have a message for Anir Dutta and Stenograph: We may not be computer programmers or $10 million companies, but human intelligence is not linear, it’s on a bell curve. We are not “stupid scribes” for you to play word games with. Words are all we know. We listen to people for a living, and we know when we’re hearing lies. If you have deluded yourselves into believing that you are so far ahead of all of us on the curve that you can lie to us with impunity, then I offer you the same stenographic proverb I offered Naegeli. TKPWHRUBG.
In our field there are three main modalities for taking the record or captioning. There is stenography, voice writing, and digital recording. Stenography is using a chorded stenotype and computer dictionary to instantaneously take down and transcribe the spoken word. Digital recording is all about letting a microphone pick up the audio and having somebody transcribe it after the fact. Sometimes digital recording proponents insist that they can run the audio through automatic speech recognition (ASR) systems to “assist the transcriber.” I’ve been pretty open about my feelings there.
There are also nonprofits representing each modality. NCRA is all-in for steno. NVRA admits stenographers, but in my mind is really more for voice writers, and rightfully so. AAERT is pro-recording. ATSP is pro-transcriber to the extent it has any court reporting industry presence. There are others like Global Alliance or STTI that claim to be for all three modalities, but I’ve always gotten a “jack of all trades, master of none” vibe from those types of associations.
From information available to me, I believe that NCRA is by far the largest organization and in the best position to handle the court reporter shortage, but NVRA does provide an incredibly important role in certifying voice writers. One common problem in the early years of voice writing, which some New York attorneys still hold against them, was that occasionally they could be heard through the mask. Even now, when there is a lot of sibilance, one can infrequently hear a voice writer through the mask. Modern certification requires that the voice writer is able to perform without being heard, and a two-strike policy is employed in which the first time a writer is heard during a test they are tapped on the shoulder. The second time they are heard, they are disqualified. Voice writing tests, like ours, give the voice writer one shot at getting their “voice notes” correct. They are not allowed to repeat or review the test audio. This kind of testing is important and represents the quality standards this industry needs. NVRA confirmed its testing policy in an 8/11/21 e-mail to me.
Most reporters know that voice writing is, at its core, speaking into a Stenomask or other voice mask and allowing automatic speech recognition to assist in the transcription of what’s said. In some settings, a voice writer may use an open mic. Some stenographic reporters may be surprised to learn that realtime voice writing is superior to digital reporting and general ASR use. In general ASR use, the microphone takes input from everyone and the computer system gives its best guess based on the training data it has. In a study from last year, it was shown that that technology’s accuracy could drop as low as 25% dependent on who is speaking. Realtime voice writing, by comparison, is a trained operator, the voice writer, often speaking into a closed microphone, and utilizing ASR that has been trained to that writer’s voice. In the best of circumstances, that ASR can reliably put out highly accurate transcriptions of the voice writer’s voice — as high as 98%. Many realtime voice writers utilize Dragon by Nuance connected to their preferred CAT software. I guesstimate that Nuance has the best ASR tech, and there’s no coincidence that despite all the other ASR vendors out there, Nuance is the one Microsoft wanted to buy. This lead in technology comes from the system being trained to understand the specific user or voice writer.
One important distinction is the difference between realtime voice writers and voice writers that speak into the mask and have someone else transcribe and do the work. This is very similar to the divide in stenographic reporting where some scopists report having to fill in huge chunks of information missed by the court reporter. A realtime voice writer, like a realtime stenographer, does not have to provide realtime services, but they do maintain the equipment and capability to do so.
The knowledge and preparedness of the voice writer is integral to the integrity of the record produced. Think of all the glitches and anomalies in stenographic CAT software. Think about how reporters create macros and dictionary workarounds every day to deal with them. As an easy example, my software does not like certain punctuation marks to be together. Early in my career, I worked out that placing a backslash between the two marks and then deleting it would override the software’s programming to delete punctuation. Similarly, voice writers have to deal with the complexities of the ASR system, the CAT software, and how they interact in order to overcome word boundary and formatting issues.
The understanding and maintenance of a voice writer’s equipment is also paramount. How the computer “hears” a writer’s voice in one microphone can be vastly different than another microphone. Different masks can be given different training configurations to enhance the ASR transcription. Voice writers are speaking into a mask, and where saliva or liquid gets into the mask it can alter what the computer hears. The competent voice writer monitors their realtime and keeps redundant equipment in case of an equipment failure, including extra masks and multiple audio backups of their “voice notes.” As someone who keeps two stenotypes in case one decides to die mid-trial, I admire the voice writers that take the time to ensure the show goes on in the event of computer problems.
Like us, there are many briefs or triggers voice writers use. The key difference is that they must speak the “steno.” The same way we must come up with a stroke for designating a speaker, they must come up with a voice command. The same way that stenographers must differentiate the word “period” from the punctuation symbol of a period, voice writers historically had to create differentiations. For example, in years gone by, they might have had to say “peerk” for the symbol and “period” for the word. Modern ASR systems are sometimes able to differentiate the word versus the mark without any special command or input from the voice writer! Again, the experience and ability to predict how the software will interpret what is said is an important skill for the realtime voice writer.
The obvious question arises as to why this blog tends to be silent on voice writing. There’s no overt hostility there and deep admiration for the people at the top of the voice writing modality of record taking. Simply put, I truly believe that stenographic reporting is better and will open more doors for students. That’s colored by my own experiences. As of today, voice writers are not allowed to work in my court and be in my civil service title. We can argue about whether they should be allowed, but the simple fact is that New York courts today tend to utilize stenographic reporting or digital recording. It’s easy to see that the qualified voice writer is a far better choice than the digital recording, but I couldn’t say to a student “get into voice writing! You’ll have the same opportunities as I do!”
There is a tumultuous history between stenographic court reporters and voice writers. I’ve been told by multiple NCRA members that when an effort was made to include voice writers about two decades ago, there was heavy backlash and even some harassment that occurred against those that were pro-integration. That was the climate of yesterday. While it seems unlikely that there will be formal alliance, inclusion, or cooperation, the separation we see today is not the same violent rejection of voice writers from the early 2000s. The civility of NCRA’s 2021 business meeting showed that court reporters are ready to disagree without belligerence and keep our industry moving forward. This is more akin to why the North American Olive Oil Association probably doesn’t partner much with the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3s. Olive oil and fish oil are both fine oils, but every second and cent spent advocating for one could be spent advocating for the other. It doesn’t make much sense to divide the time and resources. That’s where we are today. What the future holds for tomorrow, I can only imagine.
A big thank you to everyone that made this article possible, up to and including the NVRA. One source of my information was the esteemed Tori Pittman. Trained in both stenography and voice writing, Tori gave me a full demonstration of voice writing and agreed to speak at length about voice writing. See the full interview below!
A series of 2019 predictions by Gartner were reported on by Venture Beat on June 28, 2021. As explained in a priorpost, “AI”, or machine learning, relies on datasets and algorithms. If the data is imperfect or incomplete, a computer has a chance of giving bad output. If the algorithm that tells the computer what to do with the data is imperfect, the computer has a chance of giving bad output. It’s easy to point to anecdotal cases where “AI” makes a bad call. There have been reports of discrimination in facial recognition technology, driverless cars killing people, or Amazon’s algorithm deciding to fire drivers that are doing their job. I’ve seen plenty of data on the failings of overhyped technology and commercial ASR. What I hadn’t seen prior to today was somebody willing to put a number on the percentage of AI solutions that succeed. Today, we have that number, and it’s an abysmal 15%.
Perhaps this will not come as a surprise to my readers, considering prior reports that automatic speech recognition (ASR), an example of machine learning, is only 25 to 80 percent accurate depending on who’s speaking. But it will certainly come as a surprise to investors and companies that are dumping money into these technologies. Now there’s a hard number to consider. And that 15% itself is misleading. It’s a snapshot of the total number of implementations, not just ASR. ASR comprises a percentage of the total number of implementations out there. And it’s so bad that some blogs are starting to claim word error rate isn’t really that important.
That 15% is also misleading in that it’s talking about solutions that are implemented successfully. It is not talking about implementations that provide a positive return on investment (ROI). So imagine having to go to investors and say “our AI product was implemented with 100% success, but there’s still no money in this.”
The Venture Beat article goes on to describe several ways to make AI implementation a success, and I think it’s worth examining them briefly here.
Customizing a solution for each environment. No doubt that modeling a solution for every single business individually is bound to make that solution more successful, but it’s also going to take more staff and money. This would be almost like every court reporting company having their own personal software development staff to build their own CaseCAT or Eclipse. Why don’t they do that? It’s hopelessly expensive.
Using a robust and scalable platform. The word robust doesn’t really mean anything in this context. Scalability is tied to modular design — the ability to swap out parts of the program that don’t work for specific situations. For this, you need somebody bright and forward thinking. They have to have the capability to design something that can be modified to handle situations they may not even be aware exist. With the average software engineer commanding in the ballpark of $90,000 a year and the best of them making over $1 million a year, it’s hopelessly expensive.
Staying on course once in production. This involves reevaluating and sticking with something that may appear to be dysfunctional. This would be almost like the court reporter coming to the job, botching the transcript, and the client going “yes, I think I’ll use that guy again so that I can get a fuller picture of my operational needs.” It’s a customer service nightmare.
Adding new AI use cases over time. Piggybacking on number 3, who is going to want to continue to use AI solutions to patch what the first solution fails to address? This is basically asking businesspeople to trust that it will all work out while they burn money and spend lots of time putting out the fire. It’s a customer service nightmare.
I really respect Venture Beat trying to keep positive about AI in business, even if it’s a hopelessly expensive customer service nightmare.
With some mirth, I have to point out to those in the field that believe the stenographer shortage is an insurmountable problem that we now know machine learning in the business world has a failure rate that’s right up there with stenographic education’s failure rate. Beyond the potential of exploiting digital reporters or stealing investor money, what makes this path preferable to the one that has worked for the last hundred years? As I wrote a week ago, the competition is going to wise up. Stenographic court reporters are the sustainable business model in this field, and to continue to pretend otherwise is nothing short of fraud.
Journalists, we need to talk about court reporting.
Court reporting? What’s that? Court reporting traditionally refers to stenographic reporting, where somebody is taking down verbatim notes on a stenotype. We do this in legal proceedings as well as broadcast captioning, and believe it or not, our keyboard design, invented in 1911, is the best technology in voice recognition and taking down the spoken word today. Sounds incredible, right? But look at the airplane. It started out in 1903 looking something like this:
We all know what happened. The design got better and today we have airliners that can fly hundreds of people at once. Same with the camera of the 1800s that became the compact and ubiquitous technology we have today in so many devices. Very much the same happened with our stenotype. In fact, I have a handy guide here. Feel free to use that middle image in any article you want.
We started off with old timey machines where you tap the key and it punches the ink into the paper. We evolved into an era of Dictaphones and floppy disks where we’d narrate our notes to be typed up by somebody else. These days we’re packing laptops attached to minicomputers. We’re always asked “why don’t you just record it?” Truth is we’ve had that capability for a really long time. We go beyond that and have the ability to transcribe what we’ve “recorded” in record times.
We have a real perception problem in our field. There’s this ongoing push from tech sellers to come in and say our technology is old and that automation is on the way. The problem? Tech journalists, publications, or analysts often eat it up and publish it right away. I always point to this October 2020 article as a great example. It literally depicts an old-fashioned stenographer phasing out into computer code under the headline “Will court reporting undergo a pandemic shift?” It goes on to publish some quotes from Verbit and Veritext that point to things changing/evolving/shifting. The messaging is really clear. “We have the technology. Why do we need court reporters?” They term court reporter criticism as “resistance.”
A lie is being sold. This isn’t something that takes heavy investigation to figure out. When asked about the field in that article, Veritext’s CTO was quoted as saying “there will be no choice but to move forward with well-proven audio and transcription technologies and services to meet the need, and we expect to see rapid adoption there.” Meanwhile, when asked for a quote for Stenonymous, Veritext said with regard to technology “…it will not take the place of the stenographer…” They’re not alone. Tom Livne of Verbit has been quoted saying our world is not yet digitized when I just showed you that it is digitized and it has been for decades. In series A funding for Verbit, claims of 99 percent accuracy were thrown around. In series B funding, it was said that technology would not replace the human. All these automation proponents are pretty quick to dismiss automation. Could it be that automation of speech transcription is just not that simple?
It would be fair enough if it was just my word against theirs. But there are outside observers that have looked at the situation and concluded all the same things. In a May 2020 article from Scientific American, journalist Wade Roush noted that speech recognition simply was not perfect and might never be. He pointed to Microsoft’s claim in 2016 of 96 percent accuracy, better than human transcribers, and noted there have been few improvements since. In the Stanford study “Racial disparities in automated speech recognition” it was noted that automatic speech recognition was 80 percent accurate on white speakers, 65 percent accurate on black speakers, and “worse” on the AAVE dialect. “Worse” meant 25 to 50 percent accurate. So here we are taking stenographic reporter accuracy, certified with 5 percent total errors or fewer and comparing it to a word error rate between 20 percent and 75 percent.
But do we really need accurate court transcripts and good captions for captioning consumers? Nobody cares who this hurts as long as it makes investors happy, right? Sadly, there’s not much evidence to show that it’ll even do that. Much of the financial data for court reporting is hidden through private companies or paywall research data. When I examined VIQ Solutions, a company that recently acquired Net Transcripts and is ostensibly part of the “record and transcribe” crowd, I pointed out there’s plenty of revenue there, but net losses. In news regarding Verbit’s acquisition of VITAC, it was stated that revenue was in the millions and cash flow was positive, which means it’s likely profits are low or non-existent. At the risk of sounding like a cynic, I think it’s very clear, if there was profit and a decent rate of return they would be unreserved in telling us that. Like other AI ventures, there’s probably just a slow burn of money. So every time a writer jumps aboard the “technology” train without consulting anybody that actually works in the field or doing a little research, it’s burying the truth a little deeper under this false perception and really hurting a vibrant, viable field that really needs people. We’re not so different. The tech sellers are coming for your job too, and it’s just as hilarious and embarrassing.
The other issue we have is that we know you can figure this stuff out. When our job is up for grabs, there’s a kind of jubilant repetition of the word “disruption.” Meanwhile, when it’s a job that has some sense of importance or power, like a judge, journalists begin explaining things. Take this article on Chinese holographic AI judges, where the author makes sure to point out there are differences in American and Chinese law that may make this more plausible, as well as explaining that the “AI” is only as good as its dataset. This is a big problem, because the companies invested in “AI” have zero accountability. If someone brings up issues with a technology’s output being racist or sexist, they are summarily fired and their opinion swept under the rug. In my field, at the very least, every member of the public is entitled to make a complaint about a court reporter that violates our ethical codes. That’s on top of any legal remedies that may be available or justified in the event a court reporter acts irresponsibly! If you can’t get it right when you report on it, these companies are not going to correct you when you’re wrong in their favor.
All we are asking for is some fairness in the way our field is reported on in the news. I’ve often joked that advocating for stenographic court reporting is a lot like the children’s story Horton Hears A Who. We’re here but we’re unseen and unheard. We’re in danger of being boiled by big money and tall tales. Those of us that speak up can face a lot of ridicule or be cut short. Take my appearance on VICE News about the Testifying While Black study. Here’s an important topic that deserves headlines, namely, addressing disparate outcomes based on the dialect that someone speaks. I was filmed for about two hours, and Taylor Jones and his people were, as I understand it, filmed close to nine hours. Nobody expected a ten-hour special, but this topic got fifteen minutes. Court reporters took some serious heat in the news because we scored 80 percent accuracy in African American Vernacular English dialect. Every single news source I’ve seen has missed or excluded pilot study 1, where regular people scored 40 percent, and pilot study 2, where lawyers scored 60 percent. VICE cut me talking about the pilot studies and how people who really care about record accuracy need to join our field. You have a story here where court reporters are twice as good as the average person at hearing and transcribing this AAVE dialect that we get no training in, and that got warped into many variations of “court reporters don’t understand black people.” That’s a concept mired in ignorance. The story itself acknowledges not all black people speak AAVE, and yet the headline and lede rips on us despite the fact that we’re the most likely ones in the room to understand AAVE. I cannot imagine such an irresponsible word game. It’s almost like publishing an article with the headline “Journalists May Be Reporting Black People’s Stories Wrong” just because they might ostensibly fit into the category of “regular people.” But I can’t imagine that anyone would ever lump groups of people together and make broad, false headlines just for clicks. Oh, wait —
Even in a pretty amazing article about social justice where I got to offer some input, the accuracy of us versus others ended up not making the cut. I like the author a lot, but it’s pretty clear that somewhere along the way a decision was made to exclude the possibility that we’re hearing people better than anyone else in the room. Not much different from when Max Curry was quoted as saying digital reporting was too risky, but there was hardly any explanation as to why, despite a field of nearly 30,000 people and data that suggests recording proceedings achieves no real cost reduction and no efficiency gains. See what I’m saying? Sometimes it’s worse than simply not publishing anything from us. Sometimes it’s cherry picking what we say to make it look like both sides are represented when they simply aren’t or that a topic was explained when it simply wasn’t.
I know that this perceived unfairness is a result of many factors and that some are outside your control. The drive to get people to read strongly encourages clickbait journalism. Editors and outlets can decide to cut journalists’ work if it doesn’t adhere to a particular narrative or standard. The fact that court reporting and machine shorthand stenography is a fairly niche skill adds to the dilemma. Industry outsiders are not going to know there are national, state, and nonprofit databases to find court reporters for interviews and demonstrations. There are a myriad of issues that coalesce to create the situation I’m describing. But we really need some attention on these issues. We create the legal record for so many lawsuits and criminal prosecutions. We broadcast (good) captions so that the deaf can have access. The inadequacy of alternatives cannot be understated. But the average reporter age is 55 now, and to continue our good work we’ll need the media to be unafraid of publishing the truth. Help us attract people who will carry on this service for generations. We need the media to stop republishing the shortage forecast from 8 years ago and point people towards all the resources that we have built since then to help people find this career, such as Open Steno, Project Steno, and NCRA A to Z.
There is a small, loud contingent in the private sector that describes our stenographer shortage as mathematically impossible to solve. Years ago, the Court Reporting Industry Outlook by Ducker Worldwide, in a nutshell, forecasted the demand of stenographic reporters eclipsing the supply of stenographic reporters. At that point in the 2013-2014 report it was forecasted that about 70 percent of existing reporters would retire over the next 20 years. It was forecasted that in 2018 there would be a gap of about 5,500 court reporters due to increased demand and retirements. In a breakdown by state, it was clear that California, Texas, Illinois, and New York would have it the hardest, but the prediction was a gap of at least 100 reporters in several states by 2018.
This is but one of few bold arguments put out by digital recording proponents as to why the modality of taking the record must change away from stenographic reporting. As reporters and committees like NCRA Strong started to push back against the myth that digital was better or cheaper, and developed resources to help others explain the truth, the stenographer shortage became the last bastion of hope for recording equipment to take reporter seats.
It’s a simple message that’s easy to digest: “It takes too long to train stenographers and the failure rate is too high, therefore we must change.” This argument is even embraced by CSRs working for larger agencies that have actively promoted digital reporting as the way forward, such as Veritext or US Legal. I take umbrage with this simple message because it’s a lie. This idea that there is nothing we can do is a lie by omission, and it ignores any and all progress we’ve made in recruitment. Since the Ducker Report, Open Steno has expanded exponentially in introducing stenography and free resources to learn it to people all over the world. Its Discord channel continues to grow and has hundreds of users online each day.
Also since the Ducker Report, NCRA A to Z was born. Project Steno began heavy recruitment activity. Independent actors such as Allison Hall have worked in their own communities to get programs started and flourishing. Again, all things generally ignored by the we-must-record crowd. It’s only business, right? If they can’t fill the seats, it’s not their fault! But it’s painfully obvious that digital recording proponents are not attempting to build interest in stenographic reporting. We are a community, and some members of our community are obsessed with spouting the shameful idea that there’s just nothing that can be done while watching everyone else do.
But even those of us who know all about the shortage and have worked in some capacity to fix it have overlooked some important industry comparisons. In the tech world, there’s a forecasted need of some 1.4 million workers and an expected graduation of 400,000 workers. If our 5,000-person shortage is mathematically impossible to solve then tech must be absolutely doomed, right? It takes a whole four years to get a computer science degree! Time to replace all the programmers with robots, right? Nope. Instead, the argument is made to look at the number of self-taught people or people that do not have a traditional degree. The argument is made that programmers should be paid more to entice workers. Even in fields of “unskilled workers”, when there is a shortage, they don’t sit around and whine about there being nothing they can do, they jack up the prices to reflect demand.
Compare this to our field, where freelance reporters in New York are currently working for less than 1991 rates adjusted for inflation and companies still aren’t happy. At a certain point, there’s simply no more we can give. We’d each do better taking our own customers and binding our own transcripts than continue to forfeit large percentages of our money just so we don’t have to handle clients. To illustrate this better, the following is a chart for the average US worker hourly pay adjusted for inflation.
If we were to have an identical chart for reporting in New York, for reporters making under $5.50 a page on their original, the number would be decreasing. We’re not just behind the average US hourly worker, we are steadily losing ground and the gap is widening. It’s not really surprising we’re having trouble filling seats. It’s good money for what we do, but the great money in the private sector has been quietly locked behind roughs and realtime, forcing reporters to work harder and write more to have the same buying power.
The above notes on pay come with a caveat. I’m not a stupid man. I know the money in this field comes from the copy sales. I know that’s very unlikely to change in the near future. But for an honest comparison, I’ve examined the original prices, and if the original prices are that deflated, reporters have to ask themselves if copy rates have budged when adjusted for inflation, and there’s no evidence to suggest they have.
So when we are discussing shortage, I hope there are four points everyone will remember and educate fellow reporters on when they buy the line that there’s nothing we can do.
1. The number of self-taught reporters is not counted, making our shortage forecast larger than it is.
2. There are many more programs and resources for people who want to learn about stenography today than there were when the stenographer shortage was forecasted. Some examples include NCRA A to Z, Open Steno, and Project Steno.
3. Companies that genuinely care about the shortage can directly impact it by promoting steno, relaxing deadlines, or increasing reporter pay, which is in line with other industries.
4. With an estimated 30,000 stenographers, if we each spent an hour a year on recruitment activity, it would be the equivalent of 82 hours of recruitment a day, far more time than any company is spending promoting or recruiting for other modalities.
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.
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?
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!”
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.
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.
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.
Compete / Advocate. Start companies. Ally with deaf advocates.
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.