BBC develops its own voice AI


BBC will use its own voice assistant on BBC platforms, including its website and BBC iPlayer, and make it available for third-party manufacturers. The British public broadcaster says compared with Alexa, Siri, and others, theirs will better understand British accents. The proprietary system will be ready ‘in the new year’ after further testing with BBC staff across the UK, reports THE GUARDIAN.

Its working name is Beeb, the nickname often used for the company. ‘Beeb‘ may also become the voice command to activate the system. BBC NEWS says a final decision on the wake word is still pending.

RATIONALE

Unlike other voice assistants, Beeb will not be offered as a device, aka ‘smart speaker.’ Instead, The Guardian says the software will be ‘made available’ to manufacturers. Possible terms of any arrangements haven’t been reported, for example whether the public broadcaster will be motivated by revenue or reach. Meanwhile when users go to BBC platforms they will be able to communicate with the British broadcaster in its own voice and their own accent.

American-developed systems such as Alexa and Google Home have been found to be less efficient with accents outside the US, according to a 2018 study by The Washington Post. The UK presents a famously wide range of accents and dialects — with at least 37 dialects of English in one estimate.

A BBC spokesperson said their initiative is so ‘everyone can benefit from this new technology’ and the BBC is ‘ensuring public service values can be protected in a voice-enabled future.’

“With an assistant of its own, the BBC will have the freedom to experiment with new programmes, features and experiences without someone else’s permission to build it in a certain way.”

BBC statement quoted in The Guardian and BBC News

CONTEXT

More than 50% of current shipments by Amazon and Google are to markets outside the US, says CANALYS, a market research company. Amazon is the dominant company with 25% of the global market. Smart speakers use natural language processing algorithms on AI systems that can discern spoken language, convert it to text, match results to requests, and convert the result back into a ‘spoken’ response. The Guardian says Beeb was developed by an in-house team at BBC.

OUR TAKE

  • Cultural integrity is a natural space for public broadcasters. Dialects and accents are key elements of culture, as are forms of storytelling.
  • Brand integrity becomes more important as voice grows in use. ‘Without someone else’s permission’ points to the prerogative for content creation felt by broadcasters and publishers in contrast to the techcos.
  • Critics will say this a wasteful expense in the face of private alternatives that are already established and have massive sums to compete. The final arbiter will be public adoption.
  • BBC is obviously pushing ahead with in-house AI capability in natural language processing and other machine learning models.

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