Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Assistant are spearheading a voice-activated revolution, rapidly changing the way millions of people around the world learn new things and plan their lives.
But for people with regional dialects and drawls, like Southern accents the artificially intelligent speakers can seem very different: inattentive, unresponsive, even isolating. For many across the country, the wave of the future has a bias problem, and it’s leaving them behind.
The Washington Post teamed up with two research groups to study the smart speakers’ accent imbalance, testing thousands of voice commands dictated by more than 100 people across nearly 20 cities. The systems, they found, showed notable disparities in how people from different parts of the U.S. are understood.
People with Southern accents, for instance, were 3 percent less likely to get accurate responses from a Google Home device than those with Western accents. And Alexa understood Midwest accents 2 percent less than those from along the East Coast.
People with nonnative accents, however, faced the biggest setbacks. In one study that compared what Alexa thought it heard versus what the test group actually said, the system showed that speech from that group showed about 30 percent more inaccuracies.
People who spoke Spanish as a first language, for instance, were understood 6 percent less often than people who grew up around California or Washington, where the tech giants are based.
Globalme, a language-localization firm in Vancouver, asked testers across the United States and Canada to say 70 preset commands, including “Start playing Queen,” “Add new appointment,” and “How close am I to the nearest Walmart?”
The company grouped the video-recorded talks by accent, based on where the testers had grown up or spent most of their lives, and then assessed the devices’ responses for accuracy. The testers also offered other impressions: People with nonnative accents, for instance, told Globalme that they thought the devices had to “think” for longer before responding to their requests.
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