Ed Casagrande holds his daughter Emma in this undated handout image. Casagrande, chair of the Canadian Down Syndrome Society, is hoping the society’s partnership with Google will help people like his six-year-old daughter Emma access improved voice-recognition technology. The society is encouraging those with Down Syndrome to record phrases on its Project Understood site to add to the tech giant’s database aimed at creating voice-recognition technology that can understand people with various speech impairments. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Hillier Photography *MANDATORY CREDIT*

Canada’s Down syndrome community helps teach Google how to understand speech

The project will help those whose physiological difference make it hard for Google to understand them

Anyone who’s been frustrated with digital voice assistants Google, Alexa or Siri misunderstanding commands to play a certain song or access online information may find themselves pointlessly arguing with technology, but imagine the ubiquitous devices messing up every third word you say.

That’s what Google estimates people with Down syndrome experience because of speech difficulties associated with physiological differences in their mouths.

The Canadian Down Syndrome Society launched a campaign this week to help Google improve its voice-recognition technology by encouraging people with the condition to record phrases online as part of Project Understood to train the tech giant’s technology to better understand those with speech impairments.

Matthew MacNeil, 29, volunteered to donate his voice by logging on to a website and recording phrases such as ”the boy ran down the path,” “flowers grow in a garden” and “strawberry jam is sweet.”

The society partnered with Google, which launched Project Euphonia last year to improve their voice-recognition systems for people with speech impairment, starting with those who have amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, which gradually weakens muscles and affects speech.

MacNeil’s efforts to use a digital voice assistant have been frustrating.

“I had to repeat myself many times. Then I gave up,” he said from Tillsonburg, Ont.

The goal is to use the technology to become more independent, said MacNeil, who works at a grocery store collecting carts, a word he substituted after ”buggies” wasn’t understood.

That’s something he’s experienced multiple times with the Google Home assistant, which mistook his hometown of Tillsonburg as “smoke” and the Ontario city of Peterborough as “people” before announcing: “My apologies. I don’t understand.”

Ed Casagrande, chair of the Canadian Down Syndrome Society, said a three-month trial had already been done with Google before this week’s campaign began, as 10 people with Down syndrome recorded an average of 1,500 phrases each into the online platform.

He said people with the condition anywhere in the world could use the Project Understood site, or Project Euphonia, to record their voice and add to a growing database. Those who participate must be aged 18 or over.

Casagrande has great hopes for how better voice-recognition technology could one day help his six-year-old daughter Emma, who has Down syndrome.

“When I think about my daughter and the future and in speaking with people with Down syndrome what I hear is the same thing as a typical person in terms of wanting to be independent and work and socialize and have relationships,” he said from Guelph, Ont.

“I just feel that this technology will allow a person with Down syndrome to get one step closer to independence so that when my daughter is ready to work, 20 years from now, she’s able to speak into some voice technology device to call that driverless car to pick her up to bring her to work or bring her back home, or to check the weather and schedule appointments or what have you.”

Julie Cattiau, product manager of Google’s artificial intelligence team, said millions of voices were recorded for the company’s voice-recognition systems for users with no accent or speech difficulties, so a system that would understand the speech patterns of people with various disabilities will need even more recordings and transcriptions of what is being said in order to work.

“Our goal is that in the future, hopefully, Google products can work a lot better for people, even if they have speech that is impaired or that sounds different because of a neurological condition, such as Down syndrome or ALS,” she said.

“We will be collecting phrases for as long as it takes for us to make progress,” Cattiau said. “Until we have a large enough data set we won’t be able to answer questions such as do we need to train models for individual people or can people benefit from other people’s voice recordings, which, of course, is the dream because that’s a much more scalable approach.”

ALSO READ: Victoria swimmer with down syndrome completes 5-kilometre swim

Camille Bains, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

MP Morrison ‘disappointed’ in six-week delay for wage subsidy support

Kootenay-Columbia MP says small businesses and employees need financial help now

Q&A: Interior Health CEO answers questions on COVID-19 response

Susan Brown, president and CEO of Interior Health, answers questions regarding COVID-19

Positivity rocks! Golden resident brings positivity to community through painted rocks.

Brandi Romano hand crafts the rocks with her kids as a distraction from COVID-19

6.5-magnitude earthquake in Idaho shakes the Kootenays

An earthquake was reportedly felt just before 5 p.m. throughout parts of B.C. and Alberta

Avalanche blocked Highway 1 yesterday

Highway 1 over Rogers Pass was closed for most of the day

‘We don’t need this right now’: B.C. man breaks up road rage incident

Two men were throwing punches on Tillicum Road in Saanich on Vancouver Island

‘We will get through this’: B.C. sees new COVID-19 death, but 57% have recovered

A total of 1,066 people have tested positive for the novel coronavirus

Canada’s 75% wage subsidy is coming, but not for several weeks: finance minister

Subsidy will cost Canada $71 billion, but push down cost of emergency benefit, Morneau said

COVID-19: ‘The Ballad of Bonnie Henry’ recorded and released

LISTEN: Quick turnaround for song penned by B.C. Order of Canada musician Phil Dwyer

Columbia Basin Trust announces $11.7 million in COVID-19 support funding

The funding will help businesses, First Nations, food banks, social service agencies and child care operators.

B.C. adding $300 to monthly income and disability assistance payments

‘Crisis supplement’ for COVID-19 for April, May and June

‘A matter of human decency’: Truckers’ union calls on gas stations, rest stops to fully re-open

Teamsters Canada wants feds, provinces to put pressure on facilities to re-open for transport workers

Migrant worker advocates blame feds, employers for COVID-19 outbreak at B.C. garden store

Migrant farm worker group calls on government for adequate health and safety requirements

‘There can be no ambiguity’: Travellers brought home to B.C. must self-isolate

Health Minister Adrian Dix said the mandatory isolation must be abided by

Most Read