NYTimes.com Article: The Last Word in Dictation. Period.

khare@w3.org khare@w3.org
Fri, 25 Jan 2002 06:36:26 -0500 (EST)

This article from NYTimes.com 
has been sent to you by khare@w3.org.

Fascinating -- the India-based export of speech recognition services has finally arrived. This sounds damned interesting! I guess the key will be sampling. It sounds to weird to imagine, personally, even *with* a real-life assistant. 

I guess it's that, in the end, rich means saying "Make reservations at La Cremerie" -- and rather than seeing it on your Palm, the reservations get *made*!

FoRKing on the go,

PS. I was always amused that Mavis Beacon wasn't really real. But neither is Betty Crocker... or is she?


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The Last Word in Dictation. Period.

January 24, 2002 



IN my younger days as a personal personal-computer trainer,
my clients sometimes included the rich and famous. "So what
are they like?" my star-struck friends often asked. I
always gave them the same answer: "Their computers have the
same kinds of glitches ours do," I'd say. "It just happens
in much nicer apartments." 

But there was one aspect of being rich that really appealed
to me: the personal assistants. Real luxury, I thought, was
having someone on hand to cut red tape for you, manage your
schedule and sweat life's administrative details (not to
mention come to your home and teach you the computer). 

That's clearly the vision behind Copytalk, a weird and
exciting new service from Norman Worthington, the man who
brought you Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing and the Miracle
Piano Teaching System. His three inventions aren't as
dissimilar as they may seem: all employ clever software to
simulate your having an entourage of upbeat personal
assistants at your command. 

Copytalk is a glorified dictation service. From any phone,
you dial Copytalk's toll-free number. At the tone, you
dictate, for example, an e-mail message. Between 3 and 20
minutes later, the message you dictated is sent on its
merry way across the Internet (with or without your review,
at your option), looking exactly as if it came from your
desktop PC. 

The system relies on the world's most sophisticated
speech-recognition system: a person wearing headphones.
Because you're simply leaving a message for a
transcriptionist, the results are far more accurate, and
the system far more flexible, than you would get using
speech-recognition software like NaturallySpeaking. 

You might say, for example: "O.K., this e-mail's going out
to Bill G., that's B-I-L-L G, at Microsoft.com. The subject
is Windows XP, and the body is, let's see: `Dear Bill,
Thanks for Windows XP.' No wait, make that, `Thanks a bunch
for Windows XP.' Then, going on: `It's incompatible with my
virus software, my printer and my wife. Can you fix it?
Sincerely, Frank.' Oh, and also CC it to Steve B. at
Microsoft.com. And I'd like to review it before you send

In other words, you dictate precisely as you would to a
personal assistant. Copytalk says that its
transcriptionists even try to correct spelling, grammar and
muddled ZIP codes, which they check against the city
information in addresses that you dictate. 

If you have a Palm-based organizer, Copytalk gets even more
interesting. You can dictate anything you can store on your
organizer: datebook appointments, to-do items, memos,
expense-report items, addresses and phone numbers and so
on. In the process you can exploit the full range of Palm
software features. You might say, for example, "I want a
new appointment, called `Gadget-obsession therapy,'
repeating every Monday, Wednesday and Thursday at 2:30
p.m., through May 30. Give me an alarm 20 minutes in
advance. Oh, and attach a note to this appointment that has
the phone number: Technophiles Anonymous, (212) 555-4433." 

A Palm-savvy transcriptionist at Copytalk takes all of
this down. The next time you sync your organizer with your
Windows PC, the Copytalk software connects to the Internet
and downloads the freshly transcribed material. A minute
later the new appointment appears on the appropriate days,
as though you had scratched it in yourself. 

If your cellphone is your organizer (because it's a hybrid
from Samsung, Handspring or Kyocera), or if you have
equipped your organizer with some kind of modem and Palm's
Mobile Internet Kit, life is even better: the new entries
are entered into its calendar, address book, to-do list and
so on, computerlessly. 

If you're calling from a number that the service doesn't
recognize or from an office whose phone system uses
extension numbers, you have to plug in your phone number
and password to prove that you're you. 

But when you dial the service from your cellphone or home,
the service immediately recognizes you and prompts you to
begin dictating. That's when Copytalk begins to take on a
life of its own, turning your phone into something like a
magic voice recorder. You press Copytalk's speed-dial
number on your phone, the call is answered before even one
ring, and you're ready to dictate - all within five

On your cab ride back from a conference, for example, you
can rattle off the contact info from the business cards
that rained on you - and then throw them away. Recording
business-travel expenses is another big payoff: it's hard
to forget to bill your boss for some expenditure if you
record it by voice while you're still expending. 

As for accuracy, you might assume that Copytalk would give
the old game of Telephone a whole new meaning. But in fact,
transcription errors are surprisingly rare. When, feeling
particularly cruel, I deliberately dictated, "Make
reservations at La Crémerie" without spelling it, I got
"Make reservations at La Cremerie " on my Palm. (I felt
like writing the transcriptionists back to reassure them
that theirs was very close.) 

Even so, a message at the bottom of each outgoing e-mail
message warns the recipient: "This message was transcribed
from dictation and sent by Copytalk. Please confirm
critical details." 

Along the way you enjoy a number of software niceties. For
example, you can check the status of your latest utterances
by consulting Copytalk's Web site, its Windows desktop
program or the little program it installs on your palmtop.
For both convenience and security, you can address e-mail
using names from your Palm address book instead of having
to spell out the e-mail address. 

To enjoy the services of Copytalk's anonymous personal
assistants, you pay $10, $20 or $50 per month. That money
buys you 20, 45 or 120 Palm entries and e-mail messages.
(If the body of an e-mail message or memo exceeds 450
characters, each additional 450-character blob of text or
portion thereof counts as another entry.) If you go over
the monthly limit on entries, you pay about 50 cents per
additional item. 

So how does that compare with, for example, professional
medical transcriptionists, who charge about $20 an hour and
generally aren't as handy with the Palm operating system?
It's hard to say. You'd probably get more typing per dollar
out of them, but they might not appreciate your chopping
their working hours into two-minute chunks spread out over
a month, an arrangement the Copytalk team cheerfully
offers. Note, however, that Copytalk provides no means of
seeing how much you've used up this month - a serious

If there's an obstacle to Copytalk's eventual success, it's
overcoming what the company calls phone fright. Especially
at the beginning, you're painfully aware that somebody is
listening to every word you say, possibly doubled over with
laughter. Never mind that, according to the company, the
transcriptionists never see your personal information as
they work - and that they work in India. In one extreme
test, I sent an e-mail message of mushy sweet nothings to
my wife. I couldn't have felt more self-conscious if I were
naked in front of a school assembly. 

On the other hand, you'd have the same problem if you had
hired an actual assistant to take dictation - a worse
problem, in fact, because you'd have to face (or avoid
facing) that person day after day. 

If you can get past phone fright, Copytalk fulfills its
promise: It lets you milk a few drops of extra productivity
from between-appointment travel time, helps you capture
ideas before you forget them and obviates mastering the
Palm's Graffiti handwriting-recognition alphabet. 

Now all you need is a nicer apartment.


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