Technology

Hey Beeb: New BBC digital assistant has a northern male accent

Early testers can try out the new software to request a range of tasks using their voice, from getting live radio, to receiving quirky facts from QI.

The BBC has opted for a “warm and friendly” male northern accent on its new voice assistant Beeb, developers have revealed, as it goes into public testing for the first time.

In its first version, users can ask Beeb to get live and on-demand radio, music mixes, podcasts, as well as news and local weather updates, jokes from The Mash Report and quirky facts by QI.

The technology is being made available as early test software on PC first, in partnership with Microsoft.

“We’re really conscious of the sort of the problematic associations that exists between female voices and assistants, in that they’re sort of deemed to be being used in that sort of subservient way so we really wanted to make … a point and to put a male voice in there at the start,” Andy Webb, BBC’s head of product for voice and AI, told the PA news agency.

“Secondly, it’s not from down south, it’s from up north.

“We wanted to make a break from that traditional southern RP (Received Pronunciation) that is traditional with all broadcasters.

“What we really find is, when it’s warm and friendly and kind of welcoming and it’s easy on the ears … it actually becomes quite pleasant to listen to, so we worked hard on representing the diversity of our audience much more by making it from outside of that London southern RP.”

BBC bosses insist it is committed to continuing work with Amazon on its Alexa voice assistant and says it has no plans to launch a physical device for Beeb later down the line.

“We can be a receiver of voice technologies from the big tech giants or we can seek to have a little bit more control and frankly have a little bit more of that public service ethos and that UK cultural impetus into this new technology developing,” Grace Boswood, chief operating officer of design and engineering at the BBC, said to PA.

“It’s not either or, we’re absolutely still working with Amazon and they’re an incredibly important part to us.”

Last year, there were concerns about tech giants recording conversations between users to improve their voice assistants, but the BBC’s team said it will not follow this approach by default.

Mr Webb said when there are cases where it is useful to be able to do that, they should seek people’s permission and ask them to opt-in to provide information.

Beeb voice assistant
The Beeb voice assistant is still in the early stages of development and testing (BBC/PA)

“There is a transcript that is produced so this speech-to-text engine generates the transcript which allows the service to be able to go but we again, we anonymise lots of that information, it’s available for GDPR, so you can request a copy of what you said.

“All you have to do is go into the settings menu there’s one big button that says give me a copy of my information and that can be presented to you.

“Apart from that, we don’t really have a lot of use for it, so any of the information that we do use for training we scrub, we anonymise, we remove all of your personal identifiers from it and we actually remove quite a lot of the utterance.”

The BBC has stressed that this is a first step for Beeb, meaning not everything will be working perfectly from day one.

Those interested in testing it out will need to be a UK-based member of Microsoft’s Windows Insider Programme with the Windows 10 May 2020 Update installed, and can then download the “Beeb BETA” app from the Microsoft Store.

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