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Dragon dictation is a drag

"Catherine send me clumsy mobile phone"? You get what you paid for with Nuance Communication's free iPad transcription app. Or maybe it just doesn't understand Canadian accents.

I recently suffered a serious injury to my left hand that turned me (for the next few weeks) into a one-handed typist. As I make my living writing, this was a serious drawback. Typing with just four fingers just wasn’t working. It was slow, error-prone, tiring and painful. I had two choices -- either tighten the belt and do without my freelance income for a time -- or see what technology could do.

As a certified geek, the choice was easy: technology! At U$149, Nuance's MacSpeech Scribe was a bit pricey considering I would only need it for a few weeks, so, I fired up the iPad and downloaded the same company's free Dragon Dictation app and gave it a whirl.

Dragon Dictation is easy to set up and use. You can either plug in a headset with a microphone into the iPad headphone jack or use the built-in mic. The first time you use Dictation you choose which variety of English to use (U.S., International, etc.) and then tap the “Tap and dictate” button (see below). When finished, you tap the screen and wait for a few seconds while Nuance's remote processors analyse and transcribe your spoken words into written prose. You can then edit the text, copy it and paste it into another app, send it to Twitter or Facebook, or email it.

When I first started I experienced a momentary stage fright ("What do I say?"), but that passed quickly and I was soon blathering away. To try it out, I quoted a passage I had been reading in Timothy Taylor’s provocative new book about technology and evolution, The Artificial Ape (something I'll be writing about it in this column when I have two hands available for typing again). Here’s the original passage from the book:

"The Flynn effect (population's average intelligence rising over time) is really an index of homogenization and specific-context deskilling. Deskilling is a complex problem, because technology increasingly ensures that we need not know anything except how to use the technology... our practical ignorance, or outsourced knowledge. Humans do not feel the need to carry anywhere near as much knowledge around in our heads as we once did. Technology is changing at perhaps the fastest rate ever, with a continuous pressure to upgrade: I am less shamed by my failure with cat prints than by my clumsy mobile phone touchpad skills."

Here’s Dragon Dictation’s attempt to reproduce it using the iPad’s built-in microphone:

“Intelligence is insufferable what you want to send you what you are looking for construction is pretty much and I think the specific context discussed problem I'll give you some pictures we need to know what you think you are practical it, or outsourced knowledge, humans do not feel the need to carry anywhere near as much knowledge round and I hate to see wanted. Technology is cheating across the fastest rate ever get a continuous pressure to upgrade. I must achieve I might tell you what Catherine send me clumsy mobile phone has skills."

Much as I love the "intelligence is insufferable" and "Catherine send me clumsy mobile phone" lines, it just wouldn't do. I put on the headset and tried again:

“@Affect population average intelligence pricing over time it's really an exit watch meditation on specific context he's coming he's coming this complex problem because technology increasingly ensures that we need not know anything except except how to use the technology are practical ignorance or outsource knowledge humans do not feel the need to carry anywhere near as much knowledge round in her head is feeling sick technology is changing approach the fastest trader for the continuous pressure to look up to upgrade I am ashamed that my failure of contents and buy my clumsy mobile phone touch pad skills”

A little better, but I would still need to spend a considerable amount of time deciphering and correcting it.

Maybe the passage I chose was a bit technical, but, I do write about technology, so that's the kind of thing I'd be counting on Dragon Dictation to do for me. Maybe it's my Canadian accent that's causing the trouble. Whatever, I don't think I'll be trying it again.

The Dragon Dictation app is an interesting novelty in a "hah-hah isn’t that weird" sort of way. You could also use it to compose quick tweets or emails (though it's probably easier to type them out). Admittedly, it’s an impressive example of the iPad’s potential, but it’s not a practical option yet, at least not for me.

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