Lively Blind Men

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Last weekend, there was a memorial service at Penn for  Lila Gleitman, who passed away in August. The hundreds of people physically present were joined by a large crowd on Zoom, where the automatic closed captioning was turned on. And so the audience got to see a large sample of speech-to-text versions of Lila's name, of which this was my favorite:

(Click the picture for a larger version with more context…)

In case it's not obvious, what Noam Chomsky actually said was

… were the youngest grandchildren of Lila Gleitman, and we are glad to see so many here today …

Ben Zimmer, who took the photo, suggested that this one might be even better than "wreck a nice beach". Lila is no doubt having a good laugh in some heavenly cheese shop.

Needless to say, her name came up often during the event. I believe that the Zoom session was recorded, and if so, I should be able to add a list of the many other nice beach wreckages that were substituted for her name. I think I recall "lawyer find them" being one of them, but we'll see.

If we treat this as three substitutions (Lila, Gleitman, here) in 28 words,  then the Word Error Rate for this fragment is 3/28 = 10.7% — if we treat Gleitman -> blind men as one deletion and two insertions, then it's 5/28 = 17.9%. Either way, about normal for the current state of the art. Useful, impressive, but far from perfect. And as is all too often the case, it's the most important words that get mangled.

[For more "wreck nice beach" background (than you probably want to read), see here…]




  1. Don said,

    October 26, 2021 @ 2:44 pm

    The post ends with "see here…" but there doesn't seem to be a link or any other obvious referent of "here." Was something accidentally omitted?

    [(myl) Sorry — fixed now!]

  2. AntC said,

    October 26, 2021 @ 2:51 pm

    were the youngest grandchildren of Lila Gleitman,…

    Presumably should be "we're …". Are you sure Noam didn't say "We are …"? — which I would think more appropriate at utterance initial in a semi-formal context.

    [(myl) No — Noam is not one of Lila grandchildren, even metaphorically — he was referring to two young people who introduced him, I think. When the recording is available, I'll check the actual phrasing.

    Update — Ben Zimmer corrects my faulty memory:

    I believe that the auto-captioning was capturing the speech of Lila's granddaughter Zoe Luchette, even though Chomsky was projected on the screen at the time. (He was going to speak next.) So Zoe really did say "We're the youngest grandchildren…" (while standing next to Lucas DeVries).


    Useful, impressive, …

    I suppose whether that's "impressive" depends on your level of expectations. (It doesn't meet my expectations for 'adequate'.) As to "useful": no, it's not "obvious" to me from the speech-to-text what Noam actually said.

    both in person and to honour …

    Following "both in person and …" I would expect something like "… and on-line/virtually". Again the speech-to-text makes no sense. Or in this case is it that the speaker made no sense?

    [(myl) It's quite likely that there's another speech-to-text error or two in that sequence — again, the recording will tell us.]

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