From Siri to Alexa, voice assistants are everywhere, but the technology tends to miss every third word that people with Down syndrome say. Now a new effort is underway to change that.
Google is partnering with the Canadian Down Syndrome Society to collect voice samples from adults with Down syndrome in order to program its algorithm to better decipher the unique speech patterns of this population.
Speech is often altered in those with Down syndrome due to variances in the facial skeletal and muscular systems, according to the Canadian Down Syndrome Society. However, in a small pilot, Google and the nonprofit group found that there were enough similarities across those with the chromosomal disorder to train the voice assistant technology.
“With the help of the Canadian Down Syndrome Society we were able to sample a small group to test whether there were enough patterns in the speech of people with Down syndrome for our algorithm to learn and adapt,” said Julie Cattiau, product manager at Google. “It’s exciting to see the success of that test and move into the next phase of collecting voice samples that represent the vocal diversity of the community. The more people who participate, the more likely Google will be able to eventually improve speech recognition for everyone.”
Participants in the Google effort known as Project Understood are asked to record themselves speaking 1,700 simple phrases like “strawberry jam is sweet.” The company will then use the data to improve its speech recognition models.
The Canadian Down Syndrome Society is hoping to solicit at least 500 voices. Given the increasing role of technology in everyday life, the Down syndrome group said the impact is likely to be significant.
“For most people, voice technology simply makes life a little easier,” said Laura LaChance of the Canadian Down Syndrome Society. “For people with Down syndrome, it has the potential for creating greater independence. From daily reminders to keeping in contact with loved ones and accessing directions, voice technology can help facilitate infinite access to tools and learnings that could lead to enriched lives.”
Project Understood is associated with Google’s Project Euphonia, a broad effort announced earlier this year to train computers to better understand and transcribe the words of those with speech impairments.