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From #Siri to #Alexa, voice interfaces are becoming increasingly common, but for all their recent advances, they often struggle with one of the most basic characteristics of human speech: accents. The problem is so prevalent that computer scientists have identified the existence of a “machine voice,” a standardized way of speaking that individuals with accents adopt in the hope of being understood. Researchers even warn about the existence of a “speech divide” that ostracizes individuals whose accents differ from those the machines have been trained on. As is often the case with technology built on large data sets, the problem begins with the input. If you only train your interface using a narrow selection of voices, then it won’t know how to respond to accents that fall outside of its frame of reference. According to Marsal Gavalda, the head of machine intelligence at #YikYak and an expert on speech recognition, academics have been studying the problem since the ’80s.

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