Bullshit Detector Prototype Goes Live

I like writing about cool applications of technology that are so pregnant with the promise of the future, that they have to be seen to be believed, and here’s another one that’s almost ready for prime time.

TruthTeller PrototypeThe Washington Post today launched an exciting new technology prototype invoking powerful new technologies for journalism and democratic accountability in politics and government. As you can see from the screenshot (left), it runs an automated fact-checking algorithm against the streaming video of politicians or other talking heads and displays in real time a “True” or “False” label as they’re speaking.

Called “Truth Teller,” the system uses technologies from Microsoft Research and Windows Azure cloud-computing services (I have included some of the technical details below).

But first, a digression on motivation. Back in the late 1970s I was living in Europe and was very taken with punk rock. Among my favorite bands were the UK’s anarcho-punk collective Crass, and in 1980 I bought their compilation LP “Bullshit Detector,” whose title certainly appealed to me because of my equally avid interest in politics :)

Today, my driving interests are in the use of novel or increasingly powerful technologies for the public good, by government agencies or in the effort to improve the performance of government functions. Because of my Jeffersonian tendencies (I did after all take a degree in Government at Mr. Jefferson’s University of Virginia), I am even more interested in improving government accountability and popular control over the political process itself, and I’ve written or spoken often about the “Government 2.0″ movement.

In an interview with GovFresh several years ago, I was asked: “What’s the killer app that will make Gov 2.0 the norm instead of the exception?”

My answer then looked to systems that might “maintain the representative aspect (the elected official, exercising his or her judgment) while incorporating real-time, structured, unfiltered but managed visualizations of popular opinion and advice… I’m also a big proponent of semantic computing – called Web 3.0 by some – and that should lead the worlds of crowdsourcing, prediction markets, and open government data movements to unfold in dramatic, previously unexpected ways. We’re working on cool stuff like that.”

The Truth Teller prototype is an attempt to construct a rudimentary automated “Political Bullshit Detector, and addresses each of those factors I mentioned in GovFresh – recognizing the importance of political leadership and its public communication, incorporating iterative aspects of public opinion and crowd wisdom, all while imbuing automated systems with semantic sense-making technology to operate at the speed of today’s real world.

Real-time politics? Real-time truth detection.  Or at least that’s the goal; this is just a budding prototype, built in three months.

Cory Haik, who is the Post’s Executive Producer for Digital News, says it “aims to fact-check speeches in as close to real time as possible” in speeches, TV ads, or interviews. Here’s how it works:

The Truth Teller prototype was built and runs with a combination of several technologies — some new, some very familiar. We’ve combined video and audio extraction with a speech-to-text technology to search a database of facts and fact checks. We are effectively taking in video, converting the audio to text (the rough transcript below the video), matching that text to our database, and then displaying, in real time, what’s true and what’s false.

We are transcribing videos using Microsoft Audio Video indexing service (MAVIS) technology. MAVIS is a Windows Azure application which uses State of the Art of Deep Neural Net (DNN) based speech recognition technology to convert audio signals into words. Using this service, we are extracting audio from videos and saving the information in our Lucene search index as a transcript. We are then looking for the facts in the transcription. Finding distinct phrases to match is difficult. That’s why we are focusing on patterns instead.

We are using approximate string matching or a fuzzy string searching algorithm. We are implementing a modified version Rabin-Karp using Levenshtein distance algorithm as our first implementation. This will be modified to recognize paraphrasing, negative connotations in the future.

What you see in the prototype is actual live fact checking — each time the video is played the fact checking starts anew.

 – Washington Post, “Debuting Truth Teller

The prototype was built with funding from a Knight Foundation’s Prototype Fund grant, and you can read more about the motivation and future plans over on the Knight Blog, and you can read TechCrunch discussing some of the political ramifications of the prototype based on the fact-checking movement in recent campaigns.

Even better, you can actually give Truth Teller a try here, in its infancy.

What other uses could be made of semantic “truth detection” or fact-checking, in other aspects of the relationship between the government and the governed?

Could the justice system use something like Truth Teller, or will human judges and  juries always have a preeminent role in determining the veracity of testimony? Will police officers and detectives be able to use cloud-based mobile services like Truth Teller in real time during criminal investigations as they’re evaluating witness accounts? Should the Intelligence Community be running intercepts of foreign terrorist suspects’ communications through a massive look-up system like Truth Teller?

Perhaps, and time will tell how valuable – or error-prone – these systems can be. But in the next couple of years we will be developing (and be able to assess the adoption of) increasingly powerful semantic systems against big-data collections, using faster and faster cloud-based computing architectures.

In the meantime, watch for further refinements and innovation from The Washington Post’s prototyping efforts; after all, we just had a big national U.S.  election but congressional elections in 2014 and the presidential race in 2016 are just around the corner. Like my fellow citizens, I will be grateful for any help in keeping candidates accountable to something resembling “the truth.”

An Afghanistan Echo from 1986

In all the hubbub over Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s disastrous Rolling Stone profile which sparked an international furor today, I notice there hasn’t been time yet for most Beltway armchair analysts to focus on the article’s actual depiction of the state of American policy in Afghanistan.

To sum up: grim.  The quotes from McChrystal’s team reinforce the assessment – there’s little confidence on display. (Here’s the full article in pdf, it’s worth the read.)  As the RS article’s last lines put it: “There is a reason that President Obama studiously avoids using the word “victory” when he talks about Afghanistan. Winning, it would seem, is not really possible. Not even with Stanley McChrystal in charge.”

Is that an unfair assessment, too bleak? I’ve been a fairly consistent supporter of the Afghanistan war since the inception, but even I was struck that a “senior military official in Kabul” is quoted in the article saying: “There’s a possibility we could ask for another surge of U.S. forces next summer if we see success here.”  So even hypothesized success of McChrystal’s current surge would result in more troops, not less, heading for the fight – a decade in. 

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Slate of the Union Day

Today is “Slate of the Union” day, when the two most charismatic individuals in recent American history go on stage and attempt to reclaim mantles as innovators. I’ll leave aside the fellow with lower poll numbers for now (President Obama). More eyes in the tech world will be watching as Steve Jobs makes his newest product announcement, the Apple tablet/Tabloid/iSlate thing iPad (it’s official).

Back in the late 1980s I worked for the legendary “Mayor of Silicon Valley” Tom McEnery (he was actually the mayor of San Jose), and we did many joint projects with Apple, particularly with CEO John Sculley, a great guy.

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How the Crowd Reads Crowd-Sourced News

It turns out that we have lessons to learn from Uganda – more specifically, from web coverage of events in Uganda this week.

I’m constantly trying to improve my own ability to follow real-time world events, whether through social media, advanced search technologies, or aggregation of multiple old/new information technologies. About this time last year, as the Georgian-Russian skirmishes were just kicking off, I wrote about keeping up with information on international events (“Using Web 2.0 to Track a Political Crisis“).

In the intervening year, development of real-time tools and techniques has really blossomed. This past week, the onset of violent political unrest in Uganda has served as yet another crucible in which new techniques and web-based technologies can be tested and tweaked.

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Webcast interview from the Government 2.0 Summit

I’ve been attending the Government 2.0 Summit in Washington this week, along with a lot of friends and colleagues from various spots in Silicon Valley, the international tech world, and federal, state, or local government agencies. If you want to follow along on Twitter, there’s a great number of attendees posting real-time notes and comments throughout the sessions.

Over the past couple of months I’ve participated with many colleagues planning the kick-off Gov 2.0 Expo Showcase, which highlighted fantastic new-technology projects from government agencies across the country. One of the great projects showcased is www.NeighborsforNeighbors.org, a collaborative website of rich services run by Joseph Porcelli (on Twitter he’s @josephporcelli). Among the other services on the site is a webcast series of great interviewst all levels, from across the country. , and this afternoon I sat down for a chat.

You can watch it below, on their site, or over on the archived kyte.tv site  – lots of laughs as we talk about my varied experiences in government, and why Microsoft is focusing intently on enabling enterprise Government 2.0 capabilities.  Fun stuff!

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Social Media goes hyper local for emergencies

For the past year, whenever my group has had government visitors to Microsoft labs in Redmond to see advanced technologies, we’ve considered whether or not to show them a demo of a particular “secret project” being developed, now called Microsoft Vine.

vineIf the group was with local or state government, or related to homeland security, or emergency responders and the like, the answer was easier, because that’s the sweet spot it’s designed for.

But I was always tempted to show it even to my federal government friends – and anyone else – just because it’s so impressive!

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My bold decision to withdraw from consideration as Obama’s CTO

To: President-Elect Barack Obama

From: Lewis Shepherd

RE: My Imminent Selection as Chief Technology Officer for the United States

Mr. President-Elect, I am hereby reluctantly but insistently withdrawing my name from consideration as your appointment to the newly created position of Chief Technology Officer for our nation.

No, no, please don’t try to persuade me otherwise. My decision is final.

Analysis: My earlier post about John Brennan being President-elect Obama’s “imminent” selection as CIA director is now a curio, given Brennan’s decision yesterday to withdraw from consideration. 

Like any good intelligence analyst writing a balanced assessment, I had included the caveat that the only thing standing between Brennan and the appointment was the likelihood of a last-minute political squabble or contretemps.

This being Washington we’re talking about, that is precisely what happened. 

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