Ensuring Black voices matter: Why your voice assistant is racist, and what we can do about it

Sat September 05, 02:05 PM–02:30 PM • Back to program
Start time 14:05
End time 14:30
Countdown link Open timer

This talk contains descriptions of bias against, and othering of, ethnic and racial groups.

By 2025, there will be over 8 billion voice assistants in use. Speech recognition, chatbots, virtual assistants and smart speakers are all types of voice assistant. But as with many other technologies, issues of bias in the intent, design, execution and evolution of voice assistants are evident.

Many voice assistants today fail to accurately recognise speakers who have accents, or who speak lesser-known languages. Synthesised voices represent well known languages only. There are a range of reasons for this - the under-representation of minorities in technology, commercial drivers and under-resourced languages.This talk will take the audience on a tour of these issues, highlighting the open source efforts in the field that provide opportunities to redress this state of affairs.

By 2025, there will be over 8 million voice assistants in the world. They are found on your mobile phone, in your home, in your car, and over time, will be embedded in many cyber-physical systems across the world. At the same time, there are over 7000 languages spoken in the world - "living languages".

But voice assistants support just a fraction of these languages. Moreover, accents and diversity within a spoken language are not well handled by voice assistants. For example, African American voices are much less likely to be correctly recognised by the speech recognition algorithms used within voice assistants. And as we start to interact with systems using voice, we have a human desire to listen to voices we resonate with. Voices like us. For many people, there are no synthesised voices that reflect their heritage, language, and gender expression.

There are several techno-social reasons behind this state of affairs.

There are many established and emerging open source tools - many in Python - and movements that individually are addressing aspects of this broader techno-social system. Together, they can effect change so that everyone, everywhere can be afforded the benefits of voice technology.

Kathy Reid she/her

Kathy Reid works at the intersection of open source, emerging technologies and the communities that bring them to life. She has twenty years' experience in development, developer and technical leadership and management roles across education and emerging technology.

She is currently with Mozilla's Voice team, and is doing a PhD with ANU's 3A Institute on how open voice technology goes to scale.