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Is Alexa Biased?

The Washington Post recently published a study which revealed Alexa, the artificial intelligent voice assistant, lacks the ability to understand certain groups of dialect. This has resulted in bias. The study showed that “to learn different ways of speaking, the [artificial intelligence] needs a diverse range of voices — and experts say it’s not getting them because too many of the people training, testing and working with the systems all sound the same. That means accents that are less common or prestigious end up more likely to be misunderstood, met with silence or the dreaded, “Sorry, I didn’t get that.”

The study further notes that “for many across the country [and the world], “the wave of the future has a bias problem” and it is leaving diverse demographics and dialects behind. Rachael Tatman, a data scientist who has studied speech recognition weighed in saying voice assistant systems “work best for white, highly educated, upper-middle-class Americans, probably from the West Coast, because that’s the group that’s had access to the technology from the very beginning.”  

In my opinion, Alexa is not the problem, but the group (and group-think) behind it is. Group-think is limiting. Think about it, everyone at the table looks, sounds and thinks the same. A homogeneous group, although comfortable and familiar for its members, is limited in scope and exclusionary in process. The danger is this group functions with a 'people-who-are-just-like-me' mentality and excludes and disadvantages 'the others' who are not. That is called affinity bias. In this case, Alexa

being programmed to understand a select group of excludes a vast number of consumers in the world. I submit that for Alexa to understand a diverse range of voices it needs to experience and have exposure to diverse groups of people. That means a diverse group of programmers need to be around the table. I can always tell when they are not.

Alexa has been in existence since 2014. I am interested to see how Alexa expands within the coming years. That is why the work my firm provides is so important. We work with companies to create inclusion imperatives for products and services. We also spend valuable time and resources developing leaders and companies to expand their lens to include cultures and groups of people who are traditionally excluded. The world is bigger than your circle. Put in the work to be inclusive and watch your company grow.

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