The BBC is preparing to launch a rival to Amazon's Alexa called Beeb, with a pledge that it will understand British accents. The voice assistant, which has been created by an in-house BBC team, will be launched next year, with a focus on enabling people to find their favourite programmes and interact with online services. While some US-developed products have struggled to understand strong regional accents, the BBC will this week ask staff in offices around the UK to record their voices and make sure the software understands them. The BBC currently has no plans to launch a standalone physical product such as Amazon's Echo speaker or a Google Home device. Instead, the Beeb software will be built into the BBC's website, its iPlayer app on smart TVs, and made available to manufacturers who want to incorporate the public broadcaster's software.
If you stumble over your grammar, take comfort in this: Tech companies are supercharging their digital grammar editors with artificial intelligence and machine learning in an attempt to make clear, persuasive writing easier than ever. Google became the latest to enter the game last week, when the tech giant announced it would be adding an artificial intelligence-powered tool that offers automatic detection of grammar mistakes while composing messages in Gmail, as well as auto-correction of some common spelling mistakes. The company introduced a similar AI-driven function to documents in G Suite earlier this year. While some education experts applaud the advancement of high-tech grammar tools as a way to help people more clearly express their thoughts, others aren't so sure. Artificial intelligence, according to the contrarians, is only as smart as the humans who program it, and often just as biased.
Hey, Google, enough is enough already. Google was caught having contractors listening in to our conversations from its personal assistant, which sounds bad until you realize Google wasn't alone in this. Apple and Facebook were doing the same thing. And this week, Microsoft got stung by Vice's Motherboard, and now admits it, too, listens. The companies, which also include Amazon, have said they do this on a limited basis to learn and make their assistants better.
The two companies have butted heads for years, and it's likely they'll continue to do so--Spotify's protest web page (in which Spotify details accusations that Apple engages in anticompetitive behavior) is just one example of hurt feelings. But despite the mutual dislike, Apple and Spotify are reportedly in talks to integrate Spotify more tightly with Siri, Apple's digital assistant. The companies are "discussing a plan" that would let iPhone users ask Siri to play music with Spotify, instead of requiring them to manually navigate to whatever song, album, or playlist they want to hear via the third-party app. The Information's report on this handy potential change cites three anonymous sources who are "familiar with the discussions." Neither company confirmed the report when contacted by Fast Company.
When it comes to pure, cutting the cord TVs, Amazon's Fire TV Edition paved new ground in 2018. It was low-priced and aimed at folks who were happy ditching cable, plugging in an antenna and using the set to watch Internet programming. Vizio's new V436-61, just out, goes even further. It does all of that, and more. Instead of just being able to use voice commands via the Amazon Alexa assistant, Vizio lets you use Apple's Siri and the Google Assistant as well.
Now that it's upending the way you play music, cook, shop, hear the news and check the weather, the friendly voice emanating from your Amazon Alexa-enabled smart speaker is poised to wriggle its way into all things health care. Amazon has big ambitions for its devices. It thinks Alexa, the virtual assistant inside them, could help doctors diagnose mental illness, autism, concussions and Parkinson's disease. It even hopes Alexa will detect when you're having a heart attack. At present, Alexa can perform a handful of health care-related tasks: "She" can track blood glucose levels, describe symptoms, access post-surgical care instructions, monitor home prescription deliveries and make same-day appointments at the nearest urgent care center.
Chatbots today pop up at websites in smartphone apps; the same technology helps robots, smart speakers, and other machines operate in a more human-like way. The idea of conversing with a computer is nothing new. As far back as the 1960s, a natural language processing program named Eliza matched typed remarks with scripted responses. The software identified key words and responded with phrases that made it seem as though the computer was responding conversationally. Since then, such conversational interfaces--also known as virtual agents--have advanced remarkably due to greater processing power, cloud computing, and ongoing improvements in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning.
"Do you believe in magic?" Google asked attendees of its annual developer conference this May, playing the seminal Lovin' Spoonful tune as an introduction. Throughout the three-day event, company executives repeatedly answered yes while touting new features of the Google Assistant, the company's version of Alexa or Siri, that can indeed feel magical. The tool can book you a rental car, tell you what the weather is like at your mother's house, and even interpret live conversations across 26 languages. But to some of the Google employees responsible for making the Assistant work, the tagline of the conference – "Keep making magic" – obscured a more mundane reality: the technical wizardry relies on massive data sets built by subcontracted human workers earning low wages.
Assigning female genders to digital assistants such as Apple's Siri and Amazon's Alexa is helping entrench harmful gender biases, according to a UN agency. Research released by Unesco claims that the often submissive and flirty responses offered by the systems to many queries – including outright abusive ones – reinforce ideas of women as subservient. "Because the speech of most voice assistants is female, it sends a signal that women are obliging, docile and eager-to-please helpers, available at the touch of a button or with a blunt voice command like'hey' or'OK'," the report said. "The assistant holds no power of agency beyond what the commander asks of it. It honours commands and responds to queries regardless of their tone or hostility. In many communities, this reinforces commonly held gender biases that women are subservient and tolerant of poor treatment."