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Smart assistant that recognises British regional accents to be launched by the BBC


Can ye understand me Alexa? Smart assistant ‘Beeb’ that recognises all British regional accents to be launched by the BBC next year

  • Popular smart assistants from Amazon and Google are trained using US voices  
  • Footage of regional speakers struggling to be understood have spread online
  • BBC staff are asking employees across the corporation to record their voices
  • They hope ‘Beeb’ will counter the American bias of software currently used

Hope is at hand for millions of frustrated smart assistant users across the UK as the BBC announces plans for ‘Beeb’, an AI that will recognise all British regional accents.

Videos of Glaswegians, Liverpudlians, Mancunians and others have spread online in recent years, showing their struggles with products like Amazon’s Alexa. 

Many have been forced to adopt a ‘received pronunciation’ way of speaking to be understood.

Ironically, this formal accent was once seen as a bastion of style within the BBC’s own cadre of presenters.

Developers claim the smart assistant will be available next year on the BBC’s website, iPlayer and as a software plugin for hardware like Amazon’s Echo speaker range.

They hope it will let viewers find their favourite programmes and access other online services offered by the broadcaster.

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Hope is at hand for millions of frustrated smart assistant users across the UK as the BBC announces plans for 'Beeb', an AI that will recognise all British regional accents (stock image)

Hope is at hand for millions of frustrated smart assistant users across the UK as the BBC announces plans for ‘Beeb’, an AI that will recognise all British regional accents (stock image)

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An in-house team of staff at the BBC is this week asking employees across the corporation’s UK offices to record their voices, in an attempt to counter the American bias of current smart assistant software.

Much like its rivals, the software will be activated by a wakeword – in this case, Beeb – although the smart assistant will not offer the same range of abilities as its transatlantic cousins.

There are also currently no plans to launch a physical product to take on Amazon’s Echo  or Google’s Home range of smart speakers, and it’s unclear who will provide the voice for Beeb,  

‘With an assistant of its own, the BBC will have the freedom to experiment with new programmes, features and experiences without someone else’s permission to build it in a certain way,’ a BBC spokesperson said.

It will also allow the BBC to be much more ambitious in the content and features that listeners can enjoy,’ a spokesperson told the Guardian.

Many British smart assistant users have been forced to adopt a 'received pronunciation' way of speaking to be understood. Ironically, this formal accent was once seen as a bastion of style within the BBC's own cadre of presenters

Many British smart assistant users have been forced to adopt a ‘received pronunciation’ way of speaking to be understood. Ironically, this formal accent was once seen as a bastion of style within the BBC’s own cadre of presenters 

Smart assistants have caused some controversy, particularly over claims they may be constantly listening in on their users.

In April, Amazon admitted its workers do listen to private voice recordings from Alexa to improve the voice-assistants’ understanding of human speech. 

As many as 1,000 clips are reviewed by workers in buildings all over the world, without the knowledge of the people being recorded.

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In July, Google joined the list of companies using customers’ voice recordings to improve its smart home products.

Google admitted that it gives workers access to some audio recordings from its Google Home and Android smart speakers. 

A BBC spokesman said that users of Beeb have nothing to fear from its use of the software.

‘People know and trust the BBC, so it will use its role as public service innovator in technology to ensure everyone – not just the tech-elite – can benefit from accessing content and new experiences in this new way.’ 

WHY ARE PEOPLE CONCERNED OVER PRIVACY WITH AMAZON’S ALEXA DEVICES?

Amazon devices have previously been activated when they’re not wanted – meaning the devices could be listening.

Millions are reluctant to invite the devices and their powerful microphones into their homes out of concern that their conversations are being heard.

Amazon devices rely on microphones listening out for a key word, which can be triggered by accident and without their owner’s realisation. 

The camera on the £119.99 ($129) Echo Spot, which doubles up as a ‘smart alarm’, will also probably be facing directly at the user’s bed. 

The device has such sophisticated microphones it can hear people talking from across the room – even if music is playing. 

Last month a hack by British security researcher Mark Barnes saw 2015 and 2016 versions of the Echo turned into a live microphone.

Fraudsters could then use this live audio feed to collect sensitive information from the device.   

 

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