Opinion | Alexa, Why Can’t You Understand Me?
As the national conversation about disability rights and accessibility has grown, some of those companies — including Google, Apple and Amazon — have finally begun to re-engineer existing products to try to make them work for people like me.
Apple has collected more than 28,000 audio clips of stutterers in hopes of improving Siri’s voice recognition systems. Amazon has collaborated with Voiceitt, an app that learns individual speech patterns, to make Alexa more accessible. Microsoft has put $25 million toward inclusive technology. And Google has worked with speech engineers, speech language pathologists and a pair of A.L.S. organizations to start a project to train its existing software to recognize diverse speech patterns.
Julie Cattiau, a product manager in Google’s artificial intelligence team, told me that ultimately, the company hopes to equip Google Assistant to tailor itself to an individual’s speech. “For example, people who have A.L.S. often have speech impairments and mobility impairments as the disease progresses,” she said. “So it would be helpful for them to be able to use the technology to turn the lights on and off or change the temperature without having to move around the house.”
Muratcan Cicek, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Santa Cruz, with cerebral palsy, has a severe speech disorder, cannot walk and has limited control of his arms and hands. He said he tried for years to use Microsoft Cortana and Google Assistant, but they couldn’t understand his speech. After joining Google’s project, he said he was able to use a prototype of the improved Google Assistant.
Despite Mr. Cicek’s success, Ms. Cattiau said that Google’s improved voice technology still has a long way to go until it is ready to be released to the public.
These unfinished efforts — announced in 2019, three years after Google Assistant debuted — demonstrate voice technology’s most pressing problem: Accessibility is rarely part of its original design.
Mr. Rudzicz said that it’s more difficult to alter software after its creation than to develop it with differing abilities in mind in the first place. When companies don’t prioritize accessibility from the outset, they neglect possible customers and undermine the potential of their diversity efforts.