Opinion | Voice assistants don’t understand us. They should.


As the national discussion about disability rights and accessibility has increased, some of these companies – including Google, Apple, and Amazon – have finally started to revise existing products trying to make them work for people like me.

Apple has collected more than 28,000 audio clips from stutterers to improve Siri’s speech recognition systems. Amazon has partnered with Voiceitt, an app that learns custom language patterns to make Alexa more accessible. Microsoft has invested $ 25 million in inclusive technology. And Google worked with language engineers, speech pathologists, and two ALS organizations to start a project to train its existing software to recognize different language patterns.

Julie Cattiau, a product manager on Google’s artificial intelligence team, told me that ultimately the company hopes to equip the Google Assistant to adapt to a person’s language. “For example, people with ALS often have language and mobility impairments as the disease progresses,” she said. “It would be helpful if you could use the technology to switch the lights on and off or change the temperature without having to move around the house.”

Muratcan Cicek, a Ph.D. University of California, Santa Cruz candidate with cerebral palsy, severe language disorder, unable to walk, and limited control of arms and hands. He said he tried using Microsoft Cortana and Google Assistant for years but they couldn’t understand his speech. After joining the Google Project, he said he was able to use a prototype of the improved Google Assistant.

Despite Mr. Cicek’s success, Ms. Cattiau said that Google’s enhanced language technology has a long way to go before it can be made available to the public.

These unfinished efforts – announced in 2019, three years after the Google Assistant debuted – demonstrate the most pressing problem facing language technology: accessibility is rarely part of its original design.

Mr. Rudzicz said that it is more difficult to change software after it has been created than to develop it from the start with different skills. If companies don’t prioritize accessibility from the start, they’re neglecting potential customers and undermining the potential of their diversity efforts.


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