It has been called the “robot revolution” — algorithms and artificial intelligence (AI) are automating work traditionally done by humans.
But how far has technology come? Can robots replace, for example, a radio host?
Specifically, could one replace ABC Radio Melbourne breakfast presenter Red Symons?
We decided to find out, and set about making a robot radio voice we affectionately named Redbot.
The laws of Redbot
Before we could build Redbot we had to set some ground rules.
All the components had to be available “off-the-shelf” — we couldn’t code a bespoke Red Symons robot, although we did put in a few trademark Red Symons phrases just in case they were needed.
Secondly, we wouldn’t be thrusting the robot straight into the presenter’s chair.
Future radio presenters often get their start after being identified as “good talent”, i.e. they perform well when interviewed.
If our robot wasn’t good talent, then there wasn’t much hope for it as a breakfast radio presenter.
How Redbot works:
- Speech-to-text software converts spoken questions to text, so the chatbot can understand them
- Chatbot software Mitsuku uses artificial intelligence to formulate appropriate responses
- Voice synthesiser Lyrebird converts the responses to audio, using recordings of Red’s voice
We constructed Redbot using three pieces of freely-available software.
A free online speech-to-text translator captured the interviewer’s questions and turned them into plain text that the chatbot would understand.
We spent a bit of time deciding which chatbot to use.
The first option we explored was Microsoft’s Zo, which the corporation released about a year after its AI predecessor Tay was pulled offline for spouting racist rhetoric.
However, in testing we found Zo had a predilection for answering questions with GIFs, which was not so great for radio.
We settled on Mitsuku, three-time winner of the international Loebner Awards, which judge chatbots according to how human they seem.
Finally, we had to give Redbot a voice, so we turned to software called Lyrebird, developed by a start-up in Montreal. Lyrebird analyses the recorded speech of an individual to produce a synthesised version of that person’s voice.
Redbot was not an entirely fair test of Lyrebird’s capabilities — we fed the system with the bare minimum required to produce an approximation of Red’s dulcet tones.
So how did it go?
Not so well. Take a listen:
Redbot was not exactly expansive in conversation, and required detailed questions to produce useful answers.
Its responses to Red’s more casual questions such as “Do you know Siri?” and “How about the footy?” lacked the human touch.
Red’s summation of the robot’s performance was that it was fine, as long as it was “reading from the brochure”.
What did we learn?
We won’t be replacing Red with a robot any time soon.
Digital personal assistants such as Alexa, Siri and Cortana may be able to provide the basics of news, weather and traffic, but humans are still better at providing informative and entertaining conversations to start your day.
Your Jobs Our Future
According to Tim Baldwin, a professor at University of Melbourne’s Computing and Information Systems department, chatbots are only useful for replacing jobs where the interaction is largely scripted.
“The next step beyond that … is a big step,” he said.
Mitsuku may have won the Loebner Prize three times, but Dr Baldwin said that contest is a “very particular setup”, with competitors learning “how to create the illusion of intelligence when there’s really not a lot there”.
“The chatbots are coded to express things in a way that they’re open to interpretation,” he said.
“That way, the judges can interpret more intelligence behind the statement than what was really there.”
While robots may replace workers doing back-office technical tasks, people in service roles are generally safe for now.
“It’s all of those human-facing jobs where people see through the technology very quickly.”
As technology disrupts many traditional industries and causes unprecedented workplace change, the ABC is exploring the future of work. Visit ABC News Digital, tune into ABC Radio Melbourne and watch ABC News Victoria on October 1–3.
Topics: robots-and-artificial-intelligence, work, radio-broadcasting, information-and-communication, broadcasting, radio, community-and-society, melbourne-3000, vic