It’s a highly frustrating moment talking to a voice assistant that doesn’t understand your regional accent. But a new voice assistant launched by the BBC will learn UK regional accents to ensure you don’t have to attempt to alter your accent in order to be understood.
That voice assistant is called Beeb — a nod to the BBC’s nickname — and it’s just been released in beta form for a select group of users to try out. Those users are UK-based members of Microsoft’s Windows Insider Programme, a group of early adopters who test new tech and suggest improvements.
Beeb can play BBC radio, music, podcasts, news, and weather. But it also has a number of fun features that users can make use of. If you ask to hear a joke, you’ll hear one written by the BBC comedy writers. If you want something more specific, like a joke from Mash Report, well, ask and you shall receive. If you’re a fact-loving nerd (aren’t we all), you can ask Beeb for a “QI fact” and you’ll hear one from Sandi Toksvig herself. If you simply say the command “tell me a fact,” you’ll hear trivia curated by the team behind QI.
The team behind Beeb collaborated with Microsoft to build the product using Microsoft’s own technology. Azure AI services are assisting in building the infrastructure behind the voice assistant, which has a synthesised digital voice based on that of a male with a northern English accent. Upon downloading the beta version, users will be asked what regional accent they have. That data will then be used to train Beeb to better understand regional accents.
So, why is it important for a voice assistant to understand your Geordie lilt, your Glaswegian twang, or your Northern Irish accent? A report by the Life Science Centre in Newcastle that Britain’s rich tapestry of regional accents are under threat amid the rise of home voice assistants like Alexa and Siri. Per the findings, 79 percent of respondents with strong regional accents were forced to change their accents or adopt received pronunciation (also known as RP) — standard British English pronunciation. Half of respondents expressed worry that technology would cause regional accents to die out.
At present the voice assistant won’t be launched as a standalone physical device like Amazon Echo, which works with Alexa, or a Google Home with its own Assistant. But the software will be available to manufacturers who will be able to use the software in devices. The software will also be built into the BBC website and on the iPlayer app on smart TVs.
Once the beta version has been tried out, the BBC plans to make it available to the general public.
It’s currently only being tested in the UK, and the BBC told Mashable it will be available in the there only, with no plans currently to make it available outside of the UK.