October 20, 2008, 3:00 PM — You can thank prudent network censors that we don't hear any of George Carlin's so-called "Seven Dirty Words" on broadcast television. But live television broadcasts can sometimes foil even the best of censors. They only have a seven-second delay to bleep words. But thanks to Microsoft, censors may soon be getting a new tech tool to bleep blunders and zap foul language.
A patent filed by Microsoft describes a technology that makes it possible to censor, in real-time, an audio stream. The censorship is possible by analyzing the phonemes (sound syllables) which make up words and then can block sound combinations that create nasty words like the f-bomb and other profanity. Of course, because the patented system is sound based it could make for some entertaining censorships - think newscasters using the phrase "wings of a duck" or a "large ship."
The main use for the real-time censorship is probably meant to be live television and radio broadcasts. But if you've ever played a round of Halo 3 over Xbox Live can see how this technology could be applied by Microsoft for online videogames and other uses. Microsoft's own Xbox Live has become notorious for its foul-mouthed players, and a little real-time censorship could go a long way.
But censorship is a fine line to be walking. It's one thing to censor profanity, but once companies can start choosing which words to be censored they are on a slippery slope. Sadly I can also see how this technology could be used as a surveillance tool. Computerized eavesdroppers could listen into phone conversations and start recording the minute certain words were spoken.
There's a lot of good that censoring profanity can do, but we need to be careful to keep censorship just to that. We aren't China after all.