When Alexa Can’t Understand You

Someone looking frustrated while talking to an Amazon Echo.

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In the United States, 7.5 million people have trouble using their voice and more than 3 million people stutter, which can make it difficult for them to fully realize voice-enabled technology. Speech disabilities can stem from a wide variety of causes, including Parkinson’s disease, cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injuries, even age. In many cases, those with speech disabilities also have limited mobility and motor skills. This makes voice-enabled technology especially beneficial for them, as it doesn’t involve pushing buttons or tapping a screen. For disabled people, this technology can provide independence, making speech recognition that works for everyone all the more important.

Yet voice-enabled tech developers struggle to meet their needs. People with speech disabilities use the same language and grammar that others do. But their speech musculature—things like their tongue and jaw—is affected, resulting in consonants becoming slurred and vowels blending together, says Frank Rudzicz, an associate professor of computer science at the University of Toronto who studies speech and machine learning. These differences present a challenge in developing voice-enabled technologies.

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Should our machines sound human?

 

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Google announced an AI product called Duplex, which is capable of having human-sounding conversations.

More than a little unnerving, right? Tech reporter Bridget Carey was among the first to question the moral & ethical implications of Duplex:

I am genuinely bothered and disturbed at how morally wrong it is for the Google Assistant voice to act like a human and deceive other humans on the other line of a phone call, using upspeak and other quirks of language. “Hi um, do you have anything available on uh May 3?”

Alexa and Siri Can Hear This Hidden Command. You Can’t.

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Over the last two years, researchers in China and the United States have begun demonstrating that they can send hidden commands that are undetectable to the human ear to Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Assistant. Inside university labs, the researchers have been able to secretly activate the artificial intelligence systems on smartphones and smart speakers, making them dial phone numbers or open websites. In the wrong hands, the technology could be used to unlock doors, wire money or buy stuff online — simply with music playing over the radio.

A group of students from University of California, Berkeley, and Georgetown University showed in 2016 that they could hide commands in white noise played over loudspeakers and through YouTube videos to get smart devices to turn on airplane mode or open a website.

This month, some of those Berkeley researchers published a research paper that went further, saying they could embed commands directly into recordings of music or spoken text. So while a human listener hears someone talking or an orchestra playing, Amazon’s Echo speaker might hear an instruction to add something to your shopping list.

The End of Typing: The Next Billion Mobile Users Will Rely on Video and Voice

Voice

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The internet’s global expansion is entering a new phase, and it looks decidedly unlike the last one. Instead of typing searches and emails, a wave of newcomers – “the next billion,” the tech industry called them – is avoiding text, using voice activation and communicating with images. They are a swath of the world’s less-educated online for the first time thanks to low-end smartphones, cheap data plans…