A product I would really like to see…

I would love to have a set of noise-canceling head phones that could filter out bureaucratese and administrative noise from academic and other meetings, so that only relevant and interesting information reaches the wearer’s ears.

(Yes, I initially sent this to some collaborators as an April Fool’s joke. But eventually, this could really be done.)

As an academic and a technologist, I inevitably have to sit through many meetings of a bureaucratic nature, characterized by a low information signal-to-noise ratio, slow tempo and endless repetitions. As Brad Delong has described it, "an academic meeting is not over when everything has been said, but when everything has been said by everyone."

Imagine a collaboration with a good search technology company, such as FAST (now Microsoft) and a good headphone company, such as BOSE. Noise-canceling headphones work by recording the ambient sound picture and then filtering out noise (characterized by an irregular wave pattern), only letting well-modulated sound waves, such as voices and music, through.

It is a small step to strengthen this filtering by using advanced search technologies such as sentiment analysis, which applies automated semantic analysis to words and phrases. It is now mostly used to automatically evaluate blog comments, but it could be used directly on the audio patterns coming in, perhaps initially using speech-to-text conversion. Since administrative and bureaucratic language is characterized by many easily recognizable phrases and a high degree of repetition, it should lend itself well to filtering both in an initial phase and through collaborative techniques (easily implementable with a red "banish" button on the head phones themselves.) Personalization could also add value, by filtering out stuff you have heard before and only letting through things that are new to you.

Response time might be a problem, but professors are deemed to be a bit slow in their reaction to external stimuli anyway, so I doubt if anyone would notice any difference.

(Initial responses from my collaborators suggested dealing with this by skipping the meetings altogether, which I must admit is an attractive alternative. But not everyone can do that, and besides, there is always the chance that something might slip through the filter.) And imagine the market opportunities, for students, journalists, politicians, parents (at PTA meetings). Not to mention how this would put the final nail in the TV advertising coffin. I suppose seeing a movie such as Groundhog Day would be hard, but personalization would eventually fix that.

Ah, the dreams of reason