The number of American doctors using speech software to record and transcribe accounts of patient visits and treatments has more than tripled in the past three years to 150,000. The progress is striking. A few years ago, supraspinatus (a rotator cuff muscle) got translated as “fish banana.” Today, the software transcribes all kinds of medical terminology letter perfect, doctors say. It has more trouble with other words and grammar, requiring wording changes in about one of every four sentences, doctors say.
“It’s unbelievably better than it was five years ago,” said Dr. Michael A. Lee, a pediatrician in Norwood, Mass., who now routinely uses transcription software. “But it struggles with ‘she’ and ‘he,’ for some reason. When I say ‘she,’ it writes ‘he.’ The technology is sexist. It likes to write ‘he.’ ”
Meanwhile, translation software being tested by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is fast enough to keep up with some simple conversations. With some troops in Iraq, English is translated to Arabic and Arabic to English. But there is still a long way to go. When a soldier asked a civilian, “What are you transporting in your truck?” the Arabic reply was that the truck was “carrying tomatoes.” But the English translation became “pregnant tomatoes.” The speech software understood “carrying,” but not the context.
Yet if far from perfect, speech recognition software is good enough to be useful in more ways all the time. Take call centers. Today, voice software enables many calls to be automated entirely. And more advanced systems can understand even a perplexed, rambling customer with a misbehaving product well enough to route the caller to someone trained in that product, saving time and frustration for the customer. They can detect anger in a caller’s voice and respond accordingly — usually by routing the call to a manager.
She turns again to the boy. “Has your tummy been hurting?” Yes, he replies.
Our young children and grandchildren will think it is completely natural to talk to machines that look at them and understand them,” said Eric Horvitz, a computer scientist at Microsoft’s research laboratory who led the medical avatar project, one of several intended to show how people and computers may communicate before long.
Maybe that is because the assistant is the disembodied likeness of a woman’s face on a computer screen — a no-frills avatar. Her words of sympathy are jerky, flat and mechanical. But she has the right stuff — the ability to understand speech, recognize pediatric conditions and reason according to simple rules — to make an initial diagnosis of a childhood ailment and its seriousness. And to win the trust of a little boy.
“Basic work that can be automated is in the bull’s-eye of both technology and globalization, and the rise of artificial intelligence just magnifies that reality,” said Erik Brynjolfsson, an economist at the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.