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

B.C. Green Party leader Sonia Furstenau outlines her party's climate action platform at Nanaimo's Vancouver Island Conference Centre earlier this month. (News Bulletin file photo)
Green leader Furstenau declared victor in her home riding on Vancouver Island

Cowichan Valley voters elect freshly minted party leader for her second term

John Horgan has been re-elected the MLA for Langford-Juan de Fuca. (File-Black Press)
Horgan trounces challengers to be re-elected in his Vancouver Island riding

MLA has represented constituency of Langford-Juan de Fuca and its predecessors since 2005

Courtney Preyser is a music teacher and librarian for several schools in Kitimat, and her passion for music and literacy shows in her work. (Clare Rayment)
In Our Valley: Courtney Preyser

Preyser grew up with a passion for music and literacy, which shows in her work and life everyday

<em>Black Press file photo</em>
Clare’s Corner: Giving thanks despite the negatives

Thanksgiving may have passed, but it’s never too late to count your blessings

<em>Black Press file photo</em>
Police look for vehicle after dangerous driving incident

The driver was speeding and failed to pull over for police

(Image by Ulrike Leone from Pixabay)
QUIZ: A celebration of colour

Fall in British Columbia is a time to enjoy a spectrum of vivid colours

Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam responds to a question during a news conference Friday October 23, 2020 in Ottawa. Canada’s top physician says she fears the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths may increase in the coming weeks as the second wave continues to drive the death toll toward 10,000. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada’s top doctor warns severe illness likely to rise, trailing spike in COVID-19 cases

Average daily deaths from virus reached 23 over the past seven days, up from six deaths six weeks ago

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

100 Mile Conservation officer Joel Kline gingerly holds an injured but very much alive bald eagle after extracting him from a motorist’s minivan. (Photo submitted)
B.C. driver thought he retrieved a dead bald eagle – until it came to life in his backseat

The driver believed the bird to be dead and not unconscious as it turned out to be

Chastity Davis-Alphonse took the time to vote on Oct. 21. B.C’s general Election Day is Saturday, Oct. 24. (Chastity Davis-Alphonse Facebook photo)
B.C. reconciliation advocate encourages Indigenous women to vote in provincial election

Through the power of voice and education Chastity Davis-Alphonse is hopeful for change

White Rock RCMP Staff Sgt. Kale Pauls has released a report on mental health and policing in the city. (File photos)
White Rock’s top cop wants to bill local health authority for lengthy mental-health calls

‘Suggestion’ included in nine-page review calling for ‘robust’ support for healthcare-led response

A Le Chateau retail store is shown in Montreal on Wednesday July 13, 2016. Le Chateau Inc. says it is seeking court protection from creditors under the Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act to allow it to liquidate its assets and wind down its operations.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Clothing retailer Le Chateau plans to close its doors, files for CCAA protection

Le Chateau said it intends to remain fully operational as it liquidates its 123 stores

RCMP stock photo (Black Press)
Charges laid against Prince George man, 39, in drug trafficking probe

Tyler Aaron Gelowitz is scheduled to appear in court Nov. 18

Most Read