The internet community is all agog over new of a “lipreading computer” that can “read” many different languages.

Computers that can read lips are already in development but this is the first time they have been ‘taught’ to recognise different languages. The discovery could have practical uses for deaf people, for law enforcement agencies, and in noisy environments. Led by Stephen Cox and Jake Newman of UEA’s School of Computing Sciences, the groundbreaking research will be presented at a major conference in Taiwan on Wednesday April 22.

The technology was developed by statistical modelling of the lip motions made by a group of 23 bilingual and trilingual speakers. The system was able to identify which language was spoken by an individual speaker with very high accuracy. These languages included English, French, German, Arabic, Mandarin, Cantonese, Italian, Polish and Russian.

We’re calling poppycock on this entire idea — just as we did on the “Deaf Video Dictionary” project — and we know this “lipreading by computer byte” sounded great in the pitch sessions but it will be an abject failure if it ever tries to find memeingful work in the real world.

You might be able to train a computer to lipread a few people, but you will never be able to train a computer to read every set of lips in the world because every set of lips are as unique as a fingerprint — except lips are moving in context with teeth and tongues and spit and facial hair and lipstick and twitches — while fingerprints are flat, unmoving, and dead.

While we applaud the notion of this lipreading technology, the greatest danger is promoting an invention that will never work is that the failures tend to taint, condemn, define and frustrate the few actually revelatory inventions that just might make our lives better while saving us from our failed folly.

4 Comments

  1. First, I must applaud your use of “calling poppycock” as it was both amusing and not harsh to the eyes.
    Second, I have to agree with you. Even when people inadvertently mumble, their lips move differently. How could it take into account all lip configurations? Lip piercings?

  2. It is absolutely impossible, Gordon. So much money will be spent on achieving the impossible. I showed the original research to Janna and she just laughed. To think of one day using “lip reading” as a surveillance tactic for the police is ridiculous and, frankly, scary.
    It’s funny that TV stations would hire Deaf people to read Ronald Reagan’s lips — he always spoke to the Press under the blades of his active helicopter and they couldn’t hear him — when the most expert lip readers are actually Hearing People. The more “hearing” you have, the better you can read lips because you have so much more direct experience reading lips and actually hearing the sound associated with the movements.

  3. I am wondering how those who suffer from a speech impediment are going to be able to utilize this invention? What happens if you are tongue tied and stutter? Can this grand invention distinguish the distorted sounds from someone with such a disability? How smart is this technology? Does it help or only hinder those who may benefit most from it’s capabilities?
    It certainly is a valiant idea … but I think that’s all there is to it. Someone’s dreaming out loud!
    I realize that in this new age of technology many inconceivable creations have become very much a common thread in our daily lives. However, this is reaching out there pretty far … way out there!

  4. Those are excellent questions, Kimberley! If you sensed you were under surveillance, would you then “fake” a speech impediment to throw off the trackers? Or would you wear a mask to prevent lipreading and Swine Flu? Or might you just carry around a baseball mitt and “talk behind it” like all the pro players?