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Google has a bad habit of suddenly trying to improve forgotten products

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Google Voice needs to grow up a little.

The phone service debuted in 2009 and reminds me of other languishing services like Google Keep and the Undo Send feature in Gmail. It’s a “utility app” that fulfills a technical need. Sadly, a new update doesn’t seem to correct one of the most annoying problems.  

I’ve used Google Voice since it first came out. In fact, I remember testing the Grand Central service before Google acquired it. The basic idea has not changed: You register for a phone number in your own area code, and Google Voice handles your voicemail, conference calls, phone transfers and other basic telephone functions. One of the most compelling features for me is that you can register multiple phones. This means, if I own two phones (say, one for business use and one for personal), you can use the same Google Voice number for both. It's really handy.

There are also two “hidden” features that are much more important to my job. One is the ability to record any phone call. When I’m doing an interview or talking to an expert, I can press 4 to start the recording. Google Voice announces that it is recording the call. The second feature is that all voicemail is transcribed and then sent as text to my email. It’s always been annoying because this feature could be incredibly useful, but the transcription is usually not that accurate.

None of this is rocket science and none of this is brand new, but in typical Google fashion, the search giant decided to improve the voicemail-to-text feature and now says it has reduced transcription errors by 49% to make them more accurate. Google claims that the service uses something called a long short-term memory deep recurrent neural network, which is a ridiculous and probably nonsensical phrase. It has about the same meaning you might get if asked people to call you and leave voicemails to see if the transcriptions work. Which is exactly what I did.

First off, there does seem to be some minor improvement. Before this update, most of the transcriptions made no sense at all. Made-up words and strung-together phrases that didn’t even come close to complete sentences were common. I couldn't even get the gist of the message. Now, there were a few more complete sentences. "Just calling to see if this works for you" came through perfectly. Yet, the litmus test for whether this really works is if you feel as though you still need to listen to the message to get the basic meaning, and that just isn't the case.

One message talked about an app called Looker; Google Voice transcribed this as “liquor” for some reason. I listened to the message and the caller sounded perfectly clear to me. Another message talked about going down the rabbit-hole; Google Voice transcribed that as butthole. (If you want to see the real examples as proof, let me know.) A service called TeenSafe became Teen Dave. Other than the comedic value, the update doesn’t seem that different.

I checked in with Google’s press department but the rep claimed everything was working. She said the update is not supposed to solve every transcription problem. I know my Google Voice account uses the new feature because the transcriptions are slightly better. I’m not getting emails with a bunch of useless rubbish for text. Yet, I’m also still listening to voicemails and not bothering to read the emails yet. It’s odd that Google would make it seem like it took this aging product and added some new magic. It’s almost like it is toying with us. I'd say it was about a 10% improvement. Oops.

Have you had better luck? Post in comments if your voice mail conversions make more sense and if you have decided to read most of your voicemails.

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