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Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant have a diversity problem

Are you an Amazon Echo or Google Home user constantly frustrated by Alexa and Assistant’s inability to decipher your commands? Rest assured, you’re not alone.

It turns out the personal voice assistants are still having a hard time coping with requests from English language users with stronger accents, especially if they’re from culturally diverse backgrounds.

The Washington Post teamed with researchers to find the assistants might be exhibiting cultural bias against users who, one speech recognition expect says, aren’t from traditionally “white, highly educated, upper-middle-class Americans.”

For example, the Echo accurately understood southern United States accents 89.1% of the time, while users with those with Spanish accents were comprehended on 81.8% of occasions.

The Google Home has a strong bias towards west coast US accents with an 86% overall accuracy, while Spanish accents were deciphered correctly 79.8% of the time.

Interestingly, in both cases, the failure rate was highest when combatting Spanish accents. Indian and Chinese accents were below the mean scores for both devices, while accents identified as traditionally ‘American’ all outperformed the averages.

Data scientist Rachael Tatman, who wasn’t involved in the research, believes this is “because that’s the group that’s had access to the technology from the very beginning.”

She added: “I worry we’re getting into a position where these tools are just more useful for some people than others.”

Street view of a colony with similar houses on either sides of the road and cars parked at the front

Image credit: Washington Post

The findings were made after 100 subjects in 20 different cities uttered 70 different commands to the two speakers. When asked about the results Amazon says Alexa will get better over time as it encounters more users with stronger accents.

A spokesperson said: “The more we hear voices that follow certain speech patterns or have certain accents, the easier we find it to understand them. For Alexa, this is no different. As more people speak to Alexa, and with various accents, Alexa’s understanding will improve.”

Related: Amazon Echo vs Google Home

A Google spokesperson added: “We’ll continue to improve speech recognition for the Google Assistant as we expand our datasets.”

Of course both companies acknowledge that it takes a while to get to know user’s individual speech patterns and say that success rates will improve over time, regardless of the accent.

Have you had a hard time getting Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa to understand you? Rant to use @TrustedReviews on Twitter.

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