The scourge of YouTube's auto-captions

  • Author: Access iQ ®
  • Date: 10 Apr 2013

Michael Lockrey is Asia-Pacific sales manager for Amara and a renowned advocate for Deaf and hearing impaired media access. Here, he dissects the effects of YouTube's auto-captioning tool, and suggests how Google and its users can play a part in resolving them.

Google's YouTube is the global giant of online video, with over 72 hours of video being uploaded to the platform every minute. But with popularity comes responsibility.

While YouTube in many ways could be seen as a pioneer of Deaf access online, the premature release of its auto-captioning feature could be doing more harm than good.

The mantra "poor quality captions are as good as no captions at all" will be familiar to many of us within the Deaf and hearing loss advocacy sector. It's a common catch-cry when dealing with traditional broadcasters.

Auto-captioning works by Google's voice recognition software translating the sound of a video into a caption-style format. It's incredibly easy for video owners to request auto-captioning with the click of a button.

Auto-captions were first made available in early 2011 and spread like a rash across the web. They are now available in ten languages, including English, Japanese, Spanish and Korean. The problem is that the voice recognition technology simply isn't up to the task. Even without background noise, auto-captions are hardly ever right. The result is a scourge on the Deaf community the world over.

Let's look at this example from Coles supermarkets featuring celebrity chef Curtis Stone:

A screenshot of the YouTube video featuring Curtis Stone. Auto-caption reads "doesn't like them but still it forms we consulted one balkans and be informed"."

Going by these auto-captions, instead of learning to turn out a decent prawn stir-fry, I'll be thinking about issues of ethnicity in the Balkans, racism in India and achieving world peace before the onions are so much as sautéed.

While it's ultimately up to Coles to treat their Deaf and hearing impaired customers equitably, Google has a vital role to play in facilitating this.

What can video owners do?

In December 2012, a Google intern developed a way of allowing video owners to correct auto-captions. This is so easy to use, failing to do so is inexcusable for anyone who uploads a video. Media Access Australia has published a guide to creating professional-quality YouTube captions, including through using Amara. Give it a go, and pass it along to anyone who says captioning is too hard.

What should Google do?

Improve voice recognition

For a number of projects, most notably Google Glass, Google has an interest in improving the accuracy of its voice recognition. While users will always have to check auto-captions for accuracy, online video would be opened up for the world's Deaf and hearing impaired viewers if auto-captions became as reliable as professional captions.

Engage with top content producers

With its near-monopoly over online video distribution, Google has considerable influence over the individuals and companies that use its service. Google should be helping to foster a culture of equal access to video content amongst its top 100 channels. If the biggest contributors to YouTube establish best practice, this will help combat the assumption that auto-captions are enough amongst the site's users.

Fix YouTube search

Currently, there is no way for users to distinguish between a video that has professional, quality captions and useless, machine-generated auto-captions. I have no way of telling whether Curtis is going to tell me about Balkan conflict or bulbs of garlic until the video starts playing. Adding a search filter so that auto-captioned videos are excluded from search results would play a huge part in reducing levels of frustration globally.

So I suppose, in a way, Curtis can play his part in promoting world peace.

Follow Michael on Twitter via @mlockrey

This article is adapted from Opinion: The scourge of YouTube's auto-captions, published on Media Access Australia. Access iQ™ is an initiative of Media Access Australia, Australia's only independent not-for-profit organisation who advocates for equal access to media and technology for users of all abilities.