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29 August 2019

Regionalized BBC voice assistant “short sighted”

The BBC has decided that the US voice assistant monopoly needs a distinctly British flavor, which would see it become the first broadcaster to launch in-house digital voice assistant technology. Famous the world over for its R&D division, the BBC is currently asking UK-based employees to submit voice recordings with the aim of training a model to recognize a diversity of regional accents – an area where Alexa, Siri and Google Assistant all fall short.

Certain companies in the voice market are real sticklers for nailing down components like accents, colloquialisms, dialects, slang, syntax, over-talk, and even more complex elements like sarcasm, which mainstream voice assistants struggle to process. The BBC’s focus on regional accents is therefore a real differentiator and could set a precedent for players in the voice sector when it launches its in-app voice assistant, codenamed Beeb for the meantime, sometime next year.

One such company, UK-based speech recognition specialist Speechmatics, has long pained over the problems created by accents, and has sought a solution by going in the polar opposite direction to the BBC. Speechmatics has described a Global English movement as an important step towards removing the confusion and inefficiency in voice technologies, which is often a deterrent for so many.

Removing dialects and forming a single English language model means all major accents and dialects are supported in one, thereby reducing overheads for customers and bringing an increase in accuracy of up to 16%. Presumably there could be issues with confusing slang terms between American English and British English, for example, but there is a conversational race happening in the voice market which is years away from anything near perfection.

Faultline Online Reporter reached out to Speechmatics, suggesting that the BBC’s focus on regional accents could be contradictory to the efforts of its Global English project and could, in a worst case scenario, hinder its efforts should Beeb pick up steam. It seems to us the BBC could end up with more on its plate than expected, and could be chasing the wrong rabbit from a voice technology standpoint.

Dr. Tom Ash, a machine learning engineer at Speechmatics, was on hand to provide expert comment on the BBC’s voice movements. “We at Speechmatics read about the new ‘Beeb’ voice assistant technology with interest – and have to applaud the BBC for trying to make an impact in a market that already has some well-established competition from the likes of Amazon and Google. In particular, we have noted the BBC’s efforts to try and support regional accents. This is a subject close to our hearts, given our recent launch of a ‘Global English’ language pack, which provides high quality speech transcription in English, regardless of the speaker’s accent. Some reports have claimed that the BBC’s goal is to ‘understand British accents’. If true, this seems short sighted. Already the UK population is made up of roughly 15% of people not born here. Most of these people will not have a ‘British’ accent. Does the BBC really want to exclude such a large demographic from using its new technology? We certainly don’t, which is why we moved away from having regionalized systems to a single Global English system to support all English speakers, regardless of their accent.”

A BBC spokesperson said, “Around one in five adults have a smart speaker in their home – and millions more have voice-activated devices in their pockets – so there is growing demand from people to access programs and services with their voice. But people are concerned about how these devices use their data,” citing a survey carried out in the Northern city of Newcastle where 79% of respondents attested to altering their accents when communicating with voice assistants. Beeb plans to be compatible with all smart speakers, smart TVs and smartphones.

In the same breath, market data emerged this week showing a Chinese charge mounting against Amazon’s dominance in the smart speaker segment. Figures from Canalys show Amazon on top in the second quarter of 2019 with 6.6 million shipments, a market share of 25.4%, growing from 4.1 million shipments in Q2 2018. China’s Baidu comes in second with 4.5 million shipments, achieving a market share of 17.3% after shipments soared 3,700% year on year.

Similarly, Alibaba is closing in on Google in third place after the search engine giant was usurped in second place by Baidu. Google shipped 4.3 million units in the last quarter, an annual decline of 19.8%, while Alibaba boosted shipments by 38.8% to 4.1 million smart speakers. Google is currently in the throngs of a Nest rebrand, the smart home unit which has finally found its feet this year, which has hindered performance.

Canalys puts smart speaker growth in China down to aggressive marketing campaigns and increased interest from local network operators, however the research included standalone smart displays in the count along with screen-less smart speakers, which accounted for Baidu’s strong performance.

Elsewhere in BBC innovation, a personalization project called BBC Box is poised to begin its first round of trials, in the form of a physical device which sits in viewers’ homes gathering data. Putting more hardware in homes might sound like a backwards step in the cloud era, but the idea is to give consumers back control of their personal data by providing them with a say in what personal data is collected and how it is processed.

Fundamentally, BBC Box aims to rebuild the shattered trust between consumers and technology – cleaning up the security mess left by the likes of Facebook.