Voicemail transcription startup SpinVox is in a bit of a fix, after a BBC investigation found that the majority of messages the company claimed were converted to text by an advanced speech-to-text algorithm, were in fact “heard and transcribed by call center staff in South Africa and the Philippines.” SpinVox says that its technology “captures spoken words” and sends them to its proprietary algorithm to have them transcribed, but “when necessary, parts of messages can be sent to a ‘conversion expert.'” If true, it would be a huge blunder for the company to claim to be using an algorithm to convert calls, but really is using humans. It also calls into question the viability of speech-to-text conversions, including those at Google Voice, which is notorious for having difficulties with its speech-to-text service.
The BBC found a Facebook group, allegedly created by staff at an Egyptian call center that once contracted with SpinVox, that included pictures of supposedly transcribed messages. The BBC also spoke with someone who claimed to work in one of those contracted call centers. That person claimed to have transcribed full messages, “from the very beginning to the very end” — which would go directly against what SpinVox has declared.
SpinVox vigorously denied the charges in a blog post today, saying that claims the company uses call centers to transcribe messages are “incorrect.” The company says that its service “know[s] what it doesn’t know” and can send only certain parts of a message to be inspected by humans — but that the messages are anonymized to prevent anyone from seeing the full message.
The company has had a rough month of July so far. It recently asked staff to be paid in stock rather than cash to try to save money — an especially curious move since SpinVox has raised more than $200 million from several companies including Goldman Sachs. The company said it would need more funding to finance growth from new deals it was making, including one with Telefonica in Latin America. It’s pretty rare for a news organization to directly call out a company like this without serious proof, especially one as prestigious as the BBC. It is even more rare for the company to flat-out deny the charges. I don’t know what to believe — but I think I’ll stick to old-fashioned listening-to-voicemails for now.