Canada’s Down syn­drome com­mu­nity helps teach Google how to un­der­stand speech

The Peterborough Examiner - - ARTS & LIFE - CAMILLE BAINS

VAN­COU­VER — Any­one who’s been frus­trated with dig­i­tal voice as­sis­tants Google, Alexa or Siri mis­un­der­stand­ing com­mands to play a cer­tain song or ac­cess on­line in­for­ma­tion may find them­selves point­lessly ar­gu­ing with tech­nol­ogy, but imag­ine the de­vices mess­ing up ev­ery third word you say.

That’s what Google es­ti­mates peo­ple with Down syn­drome ex­pe­ri­ence be­cause of speech dif­fi­cul­ties as­so­ci­ated with phys­i­o­log­i­cal dif­fer­ences in their mouths.

The Cana­dian Down syn­drome So­ci­ety launched a cam­paign this week to help Google im­prove its voice-recog­ni­tion tech­nol­ogy by en­cour­ag­ing peo­ple with the con­di­tion to record phrases on­line as part of Pro­ject Un­der­stood to train the tech gi­ant’s tech­nol­ogy to bet­ter un­der­stand those with speech im­pair­ments.

Matthew MacNeil, 29, vol­un­teered to do­nate his voice by log­ging on to a web­site and record­ing phrases such as “the boy ran down the path,” “flow­ers grow in a gar­den” and “straw­berry jam is sweet.”

The so­ci­ety part­nered with Google, which launched Pro­ject Eu­pho­nia last year to im­prove their voice-recog­ni­tion sys­tems for peo­ple with speech im­pair­ment, start­ing with those who have amy­otrophic lat­eral scle­ro­sis, also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s dis­ease, which grad­u­ally weak­ens mus­cles and af­fects speech.

MacNeil’s ef­forts to use a dig­i­tal voice as­sis­tant have been frus­trat­ing.

“I had to re­peat my­self many times. Then I gave up,” he said from Till­son­burg, Ont.

The goal is to use the tech­nol­ogy to be­come more in­de­pen­dent, said MacNeil, who works at a gro­cery store col­lect­ing carts, a word he sub­sti­tuted af­ter “bug­gies” wasn’t un­der­stood.

That’s some­thing he’s ex­pe­ri­enced mul­ti­ple times with the Google Home as­sis­tant, which mis­took his home­town of Till­son­burg as “smoke” and the On­tario city of Peter­bor­ough as “peo­ple” be­fore an­nounc­ing: “My apolo­gies. I don’t un­der­stand.”

Ed Casagrande, chair of the Cana­dian Down syn­drome So­ci­ety, said a three-month trial had al­ready been done with Google be­fore this week’s cam­paign be­gan, as 10 peo­ple with Down syn­drome recorded an av­er­age of 1,500 phrases each into the on­line plat­form.

He said peo­ple with the con­di­tion any­where in the world could use the Pro­ject Un­der­stood site, or Pro­ject Eu­pho­nia, to record their voice and add to a grow­ing data­base. Those who par­tic­i­pate must be aged 18 or over.

Casagrande has great hopes for how bet­ter voice-recog­ni­tion tech­nol­ogy could one day help his six-year-old daugh­ter Emma, who has Down syn­drome.

“When I think about my daugh­ter and the fu­ture and in speak­ing with peo­ple with Down syn­drome what I hear is the same thing as a typ­i­cal per­son in terms of want­ing to be in­de­pen­dent and work and so­cial­ize and have re­la­tion­ships,” he said from Guelph, Ont.

“I just feel that this tech­nol­ogy will al­low a per­son with Down syn­drome to get one step closer to in­de­pen­dence so that when my daugh­ter is ready to work, 20 years from now, she’s able to speak into some voice tech­nol­ogy de­vice to call that driver­less car to pick her up to bring her to work or bring her back home, or to check the weather and sched­ule ap­point­ments or what have you.”

Julie Cat­tiau, prod­uct man­ager of Google’s ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence team, said mil­lions of voices were recorded for the company’s voice-recog­ni­tion sys­tems for users with no ac­cent or speech dif­fi­cul­ties, so a sys­tem that would un­der­stand the speech pat­terns of peo­ple with var­i­ous dis­abil­i­ties will need even more record­ings and tran­scrip­tions of what is be­ing said in or­der to work.

“Our goal is that in the fu­ture, hope­fully, Google prod­ucts can work a lot bet­ter for peo­ple, even if they have speech that is im­paired or that sounds dif­fer­ent be­cause of a neu­ro­log­i­cal con­di­tion, such as Down syn­drome or ALS,” Cat­tiau said.

HIL­LIER PHOTOGRAPH­Y THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

Ed Casagrande, chair of the Cana­dian Down Syn­drome So­ci­ety, is hop­ing the so­ci­ety's part­ner­ship with Google will help peo­ple like his six-year-old daugh­ter Emma ac­cess im­proved voice-recog­ni­tion tech­nol­ogy.

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