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AI Captioning is Selling "The Sizzle"

Gayl Hardeman, CEO of Hardeman Realtime Inc., HRI-CART LLC, and the Hardeman School of Court Reporting & Captioning, LLC

I’m concerned.

I own a successful realtime captioning company with my husband. I wonder, what will become of the captioning industry if the marketing by ASR/AI companies convinces clients to “switch” from human captioning? Some already have, and consumers who are deaf or hard of hearing are complaining the captions freeze up and are ureadable! This is NOT ACCESS!

Already I see a new model taking shape. I’m recalling a certain steno salesman in the ‘70s who’d been told to “Sell ‘em the sizzle!” And I’m seeing a lot of “sizzle-selling” out there: Slick website marketing touting “new and improved AI captioning” – get this! – “at a fraction of the cost of human captioning.”

SIZZLE! And not true.

But what budget-minded company or agency wouldn’t JUMP at the chance to save money?! The sad thing is, when AI captioning is demonstrated, it’s demonstrated in a controlled environment, with people individually speaking into their own dedicated microphones in a Zoom (or similar) platform, and they are ID’d by whatever name’s initial they sign in with.

If AI doesn’t “understand” something, it either writes a nearest match or just SKIPS writing the words, with no attempt to paraphrase what was said or put in meaningful clues like [CROSS-TALK] or [OFF-MIC], which is what HUMAN CAPTIONERS do.

Further, if the meeting host allows, a human captioner will interrupt politely to ask for a repetition or clarification so that the CONSUMER OF THE CAPTIONS – THE PERSON WHO IS DEAF OR HARD OF HEARING OR LEARNING-DISABLED or any of us who need captions – will have equal communication access under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The final straw for me is when I learned that an AI company was using a HUMAN CAPTIONER WHEN DEMONSTRATING THEIR PRODUCT TO A GOVERNMENT AGENCY as if those captions were AI. The government agency was so enamored of the SIZZLE that the AI company “won” the contract.

My email inbox this week holds two requests from AI captioning companies to send them my rates and certifications for realtime captioning. I ask myself, why would they need my rates and certs? Could it be that the AI captioning companies are hedging their bets and will BAIT and SWITCH? “Sell ‘em the sizzle,” then upsell to human captioning at a premium rate to the AI agency!! That is, in fact, already the business model for several AI captioning companies. You will see on one’s website: “For an added fee, we can give you the Premium level” – which is HUMAN CAPTIONING AT EVEN HIGHER RATES.

So maybe we human captioners will all be working in the future for an AI company who gets the contracts though the sizzle-sale, then subs in human captioners when clients complain – which they will. (Wow, Mom, I did not see this coming when I left teaching English to become a stenographer. The threat from audiotape and videotape proved to be no threat. I didn’t think Siri on steroids would either.)

Maybe it will turn out all right for us human captioners. Many who try AI captioning DO come back to us human captioners. And certainly this threat is forcing human captioners to do their very best work.

But I just can’t get that scene from the film “Space Odyssey” out of my head: “Hal, open the pod door. Hal?? OPEN THE DOOR!” The misguided but heavily invested, publicly traded and highly marketed AI-captioning "Sizzle" behemoth is full of false promises – and WAY too many pitfalls! Buyers of captions for ADA communication accessibility, beware!

Gayl Hardeman, renowned captioner, trainer, teacher. Fellow of the National Court Reporters Association Academy of Professional Reporters, Recipient of Distinguished Service Awards, founder and director of Hardeman School of Court Reporting & Captioning, LLC, and CEO of HRI-CART, LLC, named recently as one of the fastest growing privately owned companies in the U.S. by the Inc. 5000.

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