In the world of voice-recognition, not all accents are equal

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IN A spoof advertisement on a humorous website, a woman asks her Echo, Amazon’s voice-controlled speaker system and assistant, to play “the country music station”. The device, mishearing her southern American accent, instead offers advice on “extreme constipation”. Soon she has acquired a southern model, which understands her accent better. But before long, the machine has gone rogue, chiding her like a southern mother-in-law for putting canned biscuits on the shopping list. (A proper southern lady makes the doughy southern delicacy herself.) On the bright side, it corrects her children’s manners.

The outcome may be far-fetched. But the problem is not. More and more smartphones and computers (including countertop ones such as the Echo) can be operated by voice commands. These systems are getting ever better at knowing what users tell them to do—but not all users equally. They struggle with accents that differ from standard British or American. Jessi Grieser, a linguist at the…Continue reading

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