/Google program to help smart speakers better understand people with Down syndrome | CBC News

Google program to help smart speakers better understand people with Down syndrome | CBC News

Matthew MacNeil might benefit more than most from smart speaker technology — but it has never really worked properly for him.

That’s because the 29-year-old Tillsonburg, Ont., resident has Down syndrome, and devices like Google Home often have trouble understanding people who don’t use typical speech patterns.

“It’s tough when talking fast; it doesn’t pick up my voice usually,” he told CBC News.

But that could soon change. MacNeil is part of a new partnership between Google and the Canadian Down Syndrome Society called “Project Understood,” which is attempting to teach the tech giant’s systems to better understand people who speak differently.

“It’s exciting that Google is taking an interest … it’s a really great partnership,” said MacNeil’s mom, Carolijn Verbakel.

The project started about a year and a half ago with Google’s accelerated science team. That group was working with people with ALS and analyzing data around their speech patterns at the time.

But then researchers realized that they could do more than just analyze this data, said Julie Cattiau, product manager with Google AI. They could use it to make voice technology more accessible to more people.

As it stands, Google Home misses roughly 30 per cent of words spoken by a person with Down syndrome, she said. To change that, Google’s algorithm needs more exposure to a variety of different voices.

“We realized that very quickly, that the most important part was going to be to record voice samples from people,” Cattiau said.

“But we didn’t have examples from people with speech impairments or different kinds of speech.”

Google engineer Jimmy Tobin explains how the company’s software evaluates the sound of a person’s voice. (Canadian Down Syndrome Society/YouTube)

That’s where people like MacNeil come in. He recently visited Google headquarters in California to record a variety of phrases in an effort to teach the company’s systems to better understand his speech patterns.

Now, Google is asking other people with Down syndrome to “donate their voices” online and do the same, and continue to teach the algorithm to understand them.

“It’s really a matter of having enough data,” Cattiau said.

“The more examples it receives, the better it will get.”

Ed Casagrande, chair of the board of directors for the Canadian Down Syndrome Society, said projects like this are huge for people with Down syndrome. The ability to foster independence is key, he said.

“They have the same wants and dreams as a typical person,” he said. “This is such a great milestone for the community.”

Ed Casagrande is the chair of the board of directors for the Canadian Down Syndrome Society. Canadian Down Syndrome Week runs until Nov. 7. (Canadian Down Syndrome Society/YouTube)

Casagrande’s six-year-old daughter has Down syndrome. She is well supported at school, he said, but he worries about what happens after — with employment, relationships and overall independence.

Something like a voice-controlled, self-driving car could go a long way to help foster independence for all those things, he said.

“As much as it keeps me up at night, I’m hopeful technology will make that transition much, much easier,” he said.

Google also has high hopes for the project, but it’s still in its early stages, Cattiau said.

“It’s still very much in the research stage … we need individuals who feel compelled to record phrases and give them to us.”

Even if tangible progress remains a ways off, that the attempt is even being made is huge for MacNeil.

“It made me feel really proud … like we are independent.”

adam.carter@cbc.ca

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