How A Female-Run Transcription Company Is Diversifying AI
Like many, I have a complicated love/hate relationship with the tech industry. I love the success stories about technology making life easier for those who have been marginalized. But I hate how the most successful tech stories feature white males as their heroes. And the media — check out this awful Newsweek cover on the founding fathers of Silicon Valley — doesn’t do much to move this narrative forward.
Enter Transcribe Online (TO), a speech-to-text service currently in beta. The project is being led and developed by two women who are the exact opposite of the white dude bros who typically dominate this space. Moreover, the product is actually useful, giving hours of precious time back to people — especially journalists and social activists.
The transcription industry is ripe for disruption. It takes an hour to transcribe 15 minutes of audio — in essence, four hours to transcribe just one hour of an interview — according to standard estimates. Yet current services to address this problem are wildly inaccurate and charge upwards of $1 per minute of audio. For people on a journalist’s salary, the time cost alone can lead to earnings below minimum wage.
Prolific reproductive rights journalist (and Establishment contributor) Katie Klabusich faced this dilemma while covering the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision on a deadline. “I would say [transcription] is literally the biggest problem for writers all over the world,” she says. “I’ve also had chronic health issues on top of that, so what’s a challenge for most writers is absolutely a nightmare for me.”
In the face of this enduring problem, Klabusich did what all tech entrepreneurs start out to do — she founded and bootstrapped a company to solve it.
In April, Klabusich, who had no prior experience in entrepreneurship or technology, teamed up with Raquel Hosein, a 20-year-old self-taught developer. In just three months, with over 10,000 lines of code written, the team is now launching the beta offering. Interested folks can sign up for one of the four subscription models, which start at a base price of $15 for five hours of transcription. At launch, the site is able to transcribe uploaded pre-recorded audio and — this is really cool — live transcription that literally types as you speak into your computer’s mic.
“I wanted to make Transcribe Online mass available; that is how you change people’s lives, especially the ones who are trying to change the world,” Klabusich tells me. “The idea was always about making it affordable; the base level will cover most writers.”
In addition to helping journalists who too often live paycheck to paycheck, Klabusich is looking to support women specifically — the freelance industry is 71% female.
Moreover, the product is poised to usher in needed developments in the problematic AI industry.
The Speech-To-Text Revolution
The cofounders of Transcribe Online are taking on an industry that has remained untapped to date. In a world of autonomous cars and flying drones, it’s astonishing to learn that transcription technology hasn’t caught up to need.
Most artificial intelligence offerings completely falter when faced with different accents, conversation speeds, and colloquialisms, which has meant that — of the few services out there — the ones with the lowest rate of error still use human transcribers.
While TO doesn’t claim to produce error-free text by any means, Klabusich says that the $1/minute alternatives can also lead to mistakes, and are “too expensive” to justify them. Interestingly, it’s the mistakes that are so necessary to move the AI technology forward — for computers to “learn” what’s being said, they need to be fed with hundreds of thousands of data sets.
And therein lies another problem — the current lack of diversity in artificial intelligence itself. A Microsoft researcher called AI “a sea of dudes,” a problem that has repeatedly created software that’s racist, sexist, and offensive.
TO, and the typical user it will serve, will create a data pool that draws on audio from a variety of people in different fields, not just the ones who can afford the exorbitant services currently available. If successful, TO and services like it could solve a significant problem that will continue to show up in the technology field.
While AI is one of the most exciting industries within tech today, it has categorically left out underrepresented minorities, both in the creation of it (just 17% of computer science graduates today are female — down from nearly 40% two decades ago), and in who uses and improves upon it.
“In my mind, we’re building a social justice and accessibility tool,” adds Klabusich, who wants TO to serve “. . . (for example) . . . people who can’t type. It’s not fair for us to wait until we’re perfect. We may not be perfect at launch, but we’re not doing this to get our egos stroked and charge hundreds or thousands of dollars, when we need this tool, like, yesterday.”
Klabusich is referring to the company’s competitor — Trint — a two-year-old venture that has raised an undisclosed sum from investors and counts four white men (and decades of tech experience among them) on its team. Trint’s product, which requires people to register to get added to a paid waitlist to try the beta product, has a 10-hour plan for $120 a month, exactly four times what TO is offering.
Women In A Man’s World
TO is dedicated to hiring people who can help shift the white-male-dominated tech paradigm. In addition to Hosein, the company has hired Wagatwe Wanjuki, a prolific activist (and fellow Establishment contributor) as Chief Communications Officer.
As for Hosein, her foray into business ownership was unplanned; the developer says she originally wanted to work for a large company, but found that most were unwilling to hire her because of her age or lack of a college degree. She’s currently taking a year off from getting her degree in Biomedical Engineering.
“The media talks about these young college dropouts in tech jobs, but despite my experience, I kept hearing ‘no,’” she says. “We all know that the ‘culture fit’ excuse is just another term for discrimination.”
It’s inspiring to see the unlikely team take on a multi-billion-dollar market, but keep their mission of social justice at the forefront of the venture.
“What I would like to do is set up a service where subscribers can donate transcription time for their favorite writers,” says Hosein. “Social justice is the main pillar of our company; that’s why we charge so little for TO — we literally charge just to cover server costs.”
The other mission? “It would be awesome if we could beat the bros,” laughs Hosein.
Lead image: flickr/Christiaan Colen