You know the fat's in the fire when a high-profile American industry figure quietly joins the board of a small company only to resign and slip away into the night even more silently a matter of weeks later when that company gets into a spot of bother. And that's just what happened at SpinVox, the UK-headquartered voice-to-text translation company that at the moment is making front page news for all the wrong reasons, as Martyn Warwick reports.
SpinVox has boxed itself into a PR cul-de-sac entirely of its own making. The company, based in leafy Marlow in the English countryside west of London, has made much of its automatic Voice Mail Conversion System (VMCS) technology, that, the company has oft, long and loud declared, is the technological nexus of its service.
However, telling emails posted by former SpinVox employees in Egypt, Pakistan and elsewhere show that the VMCs technology is nowhere near as marvellous and all-pervasive as the company would have us believe.
Voice-to-text translation by machine is difficult enough to achieve even in a research lab environment. Doing it on the fly with thousands of live voice messages being translated to text in real-time on a continuing basis where the intrinsic semantics, language, nuances and quality of any message has to be maintained is really pushing technology to its limits - and that seems to be what SpinVox has been doing.
So much so in fact that it transpires humans, in the shape of Spinvox call centre agents in various far-flung corners of the earth, have been co-opted in numbers to listen to messages live, as they happen and then endeavour, simultaneously, to turn the spoken words into text via a keyboard. Not surprisingly mistakes then ensue and messages either (at best) lose some of their clarity or (at worst) are turned into gibberish.
Now, had Spinvox come clean straightaway and admitted that at times of congestion the automated system gets overloaded and trips-out some messages to human call centre agents there would have been little fuss and certainly the company wouldn't be trying to climb out of the hole it dug for itself.
It's all about the ratio of machine-generated voice-to-text messages as opposed to those transcribed and passed-on by human beings and Spinvox seems to have been gilding the lily in this respect.
Only a couple of weeks ago an attempt to put things right became a PR disaster when a demonstration of the much-vaunted VMCS technologyto the press and fronted by Spinvox's CIO Rob Wheatley resulted in calls and messages defaulting to human "translators".
Former SpinVox employees say the company has between 8,000 and 10,000 human agents around the world (mostly in emerging economies where low pay, a lack of job security and poor employment rights are the norm). Spinvox however claims it has 3,000 such workers in just five locations. Former staff say the company uses many more call centres than that and that most messages are transcribed by human agents.
Some technology analysts a believe that SpinVox's technology doesn't actually translate speech to text on the fly by the clever application of Artificial Intelligence but the VMCS system is, in fact, a word predictor and works rather like the predictive text feature on a mobile phone.
In happier days before the excrement hit the whirling blades, SpinVox was deemed sufficiently worthy by Patricia Russo (sometime CEO of Alcatel Lucent) that she allowed herself to be recruited as a member of the board of directors.
According to that worthy organ, The Register, a document lodged with Companies House shows Russo joined SpinVox in June (although no public announcement was made about the appointment - strange in itself given that, hitherto at least, CEO Christina Domecq has been assiduous in courting as much PR and media coverage for SpinVox as is humanly possible - and not least via TelecomTV. Suddenly though she's harder to contact).
And now we discover (again with no acknowledgement from SpinVox itself) that Ms. Russo departed the company on August 10. A brief tenure, to be sure.
Ms. Russo was made CEO of Lucent in 2002 and "managed" (if that's the right word) the so-called "marriage of equals" that was the merging of Lucent with Alcatel. It was a disaster and although Russo seemed to have more lives than a cat and hung on to her job (and hefty salary and perks) for years until she was eventually ousted in 2008.
Her time at the helm of Alcatel Lucent was hardly distinguished and the amalgamated company, once the darling of the Stock Exchange fell into a spiral of declining sales and huge financial losses. Presumably SpinVox believed that her contacts in the telecoms world, especially amongst operators whom SpinVox is so desperate to woo, would be a major asset.
However, given her history at Alcatel Lucent and the bad press SpinVox is getting as it continues to burn its way through cash, it's a moot point as to who's the better off without the other.
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