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Speech recognition inaccurate even if you don't have an accent

Tuesday, November 4th 2014 by Hannah Langston

Speech recognition technology such as Apple’s Siri needs to adapt to specific accents, a linguistics expert has said.

Blaise Thomson, CEO of a spin-off software company from the University of Cambridge, told Cable.co.uk there have been “big improvements in speech recognition in the last 5-10 years” but there is still a long way to go before systems can recognise individuals’ accents.

“There’s huge room for improvement – speech recognition systems do not have high accuracy rates even for standard users.

“There’s a 10% error rate for standard accents alone.”

He added that software such as Siri needs to replicate dialogue in order to boost accuracy.

“Siri needs to move away from just transcription and ask you if it’s uncertain about a word. It shouldn’t be just a one-way system.

“In human conversation, we mis-hear, maybe we don’t realise at first but then we do and correct it.

“Speech recognition should replicate dialogue, it’s shouldn’t be one-way.

“That’s the key difference to making these things work,” he told us.

Paola Bassanese, an Italian-born author and therapist now living in the UK, agrees that Siri needs to flag up if it doesn’t recognise a word because of a person’s accent.

“[Apple] need to calibrate the software to adjust to different noises. If you want to substitute a word it should underline/highlight it so the user can check,” she said.

“[Siri] should include a European-English option for when foreigners have a mixture of accents. They should also have options for Scottish and Welsh accents.

“But the main thing is not being aware of substitutions. Spell checker in Word underlines corrections and Google always says ‘are you sure?’ when you spell a word incorrectly. Siri should flag up words it doesn’t recognise.”

When writing her second book Ms Bassanese had to revise the manuscript after spotting inconsistencies from dictating notes to Apple’s Siri.

“I was reading books I wanted to include in the references of my book. I would read whole paragraphs to Siri. It was only when I read the manuscript that I found the mistakes.

“I had to really check substitutions because Siri replaces them with common sense words so I didn’t notice at first.

“Some substitutions were hilarious - 'hormones' became 'homelands' and 'cellulite' became 'sea light'."

We put Ms Bassanese’s comments to an Apple spokesperson but they were unable to give us an official statement.

However, they said that Apple welcomes comments and inquiries about the accessibility of their products and suggested Ms Bassanese email Apple with their feedback.

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