When I first saw an article entitled Fact-Checking Live News In Just a Few Second, by Laine Higgins in the November 24-25, 2018 print edition of The Wall Street Journal (subscription required online), I though the pagination might be in error. The upper left corner showed the number to be “B4”. I think it would have been more accurate to have number the page “B4 and After” because of the coverage of a remarkable new program being developed called Voyc.
At a time of such heightened passions in domestic US and international news, with endless charges and counter-charges of “fake news” and assertions of “real news”, this technology can assess the audio of live news media broadcasts to determine the veracity of statements made within seconds of being spoken.
Someone please boot up John Lennon’s Gimme Some Truth as he passionately protested the need for truth in the world when it was first released on his classic Imagine album in 1971.¹ This still sounds as timely and relevant today as it did 47 years ago, particularly in this new article that, well, sings the praises of this new fact-checking app.
I suggest naming a new category for these programs and services to be called “fact-check tech”. I think it’s kinds catchy.
Let’s focus the specifics of this remarkable report. I highly recommend reading it in its entirety if you have full WSJ.com access. Below I will summarize and annotate it, and then pose some of my own question-checked questions.
The current process of “fact-checking live news” has been slow. Quite often, by the time a human fact-checker has researched and affirmed a disputed claim, subsequently misleading information based upon it has been distributed and “consumed”.
Voyc has the potential to expedite all this. It is being developed by Sparks Grove, the innovation and experience department of a consultancy called North Highland. Part of the development process involved interviewing a large number of “print and broadcast journalists” from the US, UK and Ireland about how to minimize and push back against misinformation as it affects the news.
The software is built upon artificial intelligence technology. It is capable of identifying a “questionable statement” in as quickly as two seconds. The system transcribes live audio and then runs it through a “database of fact” compiled from “verified government courses” and “accredited fact-checking organizations”. In the process, it can:
- highlight statements that conflict as highlighted by its vetting process
- send an alert to a news producer identifying the conflict, or
- contact someone else who can make further inquiries about the assertion in question
This system was conceived by Jack Stenson, Spark Grove’s innovation lead. He said that within the news media, in an attempt to shorten the connection of “people to information”, Voyc is an effort to connect them “to what might be the most accurate truth”. Voyc’s designers were very cautious to avoid dispositively labeling any misleading statements it finds as being neither “true” nor “false”. Mr. Stenson does not want a result that “shuts down the conversation”, but rather, intends for the system to assist in stimulating “debates”.
Currently, there are other similar initiatives to develop similar technologies. These include,
- Full Fact, created by a nonprofit in Britain, is applying both AI and machine learning algorithms to improve its tools that identify the “incidence and source of misinformation on television broadcasts”.
- First Draft News is pursing similar types of projects. It is being funded by Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.
Voyc is distinguished from them insofar as it fact-checks news audio in nearly real-time whereas the others do their checks against existing published sources.
Mr. Stenson foresees applications of Voyc by news producers to motivate “presenters” to explore their story topics with follow-up analyses in the forms of :
- one-on-one interviews
- panel discussions
This software in still in its prototype stage and there is no target date for its introduction into television production facilities. Its developers are working to improving its accuracy when recording and “transcribing idiosyncratic speech patterns”. These include dialects, as well as “ums” and “ahs” ² when people speak.
According to Lucas Graves, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin Madison’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, because of the “nuanced nature” involved in fact-checking (as Voyc is attempting), this process involves both identifying and contextualizing a statement in dispute. This is the critical factor in “verifying claims made on live news”. As broadcasters do not want to appear “partisan” or otherwise making a contemporaneous challenge without all of the facts readily at hand, the real utility of a fact-checking a system will be to challenge a claim in very close proximity to its being spoken and broadcasted.
Looking back in time to dramatize the exciting potential of this forward-looking technology, let’s recall what Edith Anne (played by Lily Tomlin) on Saturday Night Live always said in concluding her appearances when she exclaimed “and that’s the truth“.
- What additional features and functionalities should Voyc’s developers consider adding or modifying? What might future releases and upgrades look like?
- Would Voyc be a viable add-on to currently popular voice enabled assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Assistant?
- What data and personal privacy and ethical considerations should Voyc’s designers and programmers take into consideration in their work?
- What other market sectors might benefit from fact-check tech such as applying it during expert testimony, education training or government hearings?
- Could Voyc be licensed to other developers on a commercial or open source basis?
- Can and should Voyc be tweaked to be more industry-specific, knowledge domain-specific or cultural-specific?
1. This was also the opening theme song of the radio show called Idiot’s Delight, hosted for many years by Vin Scelsa who, for nearly five decades, on various commercial, satellite and public stations in New York was a leading figure in rock, progressive and freeform radio.
2. These are known as speech disfluencies.