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BBC to launch its own virtual assistant

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The BBC is developing its own virtual assistant, which will be capable of understanding regional accents.

Digital virtual assistants, with which users can directly communicate via voice commands, have boomed in popularity since the launch of Amazon’s Alexa assistant, embodied in Amazon’s Echo smart speaker range. Apple’s Siri, Google’s Assistant and Microsoft’s Cortana are other popular virtual assistants used to fulfil voice commands.

Now, the BBC has announced that it will be launching its own digital assistant in 2020. The assistant is intended for use on existing connected devices such as smartphones, smart speakers and smart TVs, rather than being embodied in a dedicated gadget. The BBC said that by having its own assistant it could experiment with new features, programmes and other ‘experiences’ without having to seek permission from a private company.

The broadcaster is working to develop the assistant with the same team behind CBeebies Bedtime stories and interactive games. Reportedly, the voice-activated assistant may adopt ‘Beeb’ - an affectionate nickname for the broadcasting corporation - as its wake word.

Perhaps most appealingly, the BBC has said that it hopes the assistant to be able to understand regional accents. In 2018, The Washington Post teamed up with researchers to conduct experiments involving groups of Americans with different accents speaking to commercial virtual assistants, finding that people with accents which conformed to ‘standard’ American English were more easily understood than those with Southern American, Indian, Chinese or Spanish accents.

The BBC will recruit staff from across the country to record their voices for a few minutes each in order to ensure that the virtual assistant can parse a diverse range of accents.

Amazon, Google, Apple, Microsoft, and Facebook have all attracted criticism in recent weeks following reports that these companies have been paying contract workers to listen to and transcribe audio clips in order to improve the virtual assistants' natural language processing capabilities. Workers have reported hearing clips captured unintentionally, including intimate and embarrassing moments, abusive behaviour and discussions about committing crimes. Some of these companies have made moves to end or limit the practice.

“Around one in five adults have a smart speaker in their home – and millions more have voice-activated devices in their pockets – so there is growing demand from people to access programmes and services with their voice,” a BBC spokesperson said.

“But people are concerned about how these devices use their data. Much like we did with BBC iPlayer, we want to make sure everyone can benefit from this new technology and bring people exciting new content, programmes and services in a trusted, easy-to-use way.

“This marks another step in ensuring public service values can be protected in a voice-enabled future.”

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