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Research highlights fears technology could eradicate regional accents

New research by Life Science Centre in Newcastle upon Tyne has revealed that 79% of peoplea with regional accents regularly alter the way they speak in order to be understood by personal digital assistants, such as Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Assistant.


More than 500 visitorsb took part in the research after visiting the science centre’s Robots – then and now exhibition, which also revealed that nearly half of respondents are concerned that greater use of automated voice recognition in our homes may eradicate regional accentsc.


Linda Conlon, Chief Executive of Life, said: “Hosting the Robots exhibition for the first time in the North East of England got us thinking about regional accents in robotics.


“Ask anyone with a regional accent and they’ll tell you the struggles of using automated voice recognition. The same people who decades ago were frustrated as teens trying to get cinema listings from an automated telephone system are now having the same issues with their smartphones or smart speakers – the technology has moved forward, but the inclusivity to cater for regional accents has not.”


But is the failure of robotic devices to decipher regional accents merely an inconvenience, or are people right to fear they will eventually stamp out regional accents?


Commenting on the research findings, Dr Laurence White, Senior Lecturer in Speech and Language Sciences at Newcastle University, said: “If we only ever spoke to our devices and they failed to understand our accent, this might alter our speech in the longer term. Because of the social power of our voice, however, as soon as we talk to familiar people again, we revert to our habitual accent.”


The use of personal digital assistants in the home has increased dramatically in the past couple of years. In the new research by Life Science Centre, 70% of respondents said they own such a deviced, of which 41% think that technology companies should be doing more to cater for regional accentse.


Dr White said: “Collecting research data, like this, from Life Science Centre visitors is a great opportunity to reach beyond the usual participant groups. We should always consider, however, how representative any sample is of the population in general; for example, visitors to an exhibition about robots might have stronger views on how tech companies are catering to their needs.”


Conlon added: “The research has shone a light on one area of concern for our future with robots and we’ll explore many more in the Robots: hopes and fears debate at Life Science Centre on Thursday 1 November.”


The exhibition Robots – then and now, developed by the Science Museum in London, is at Life Science Centre until 2 December 2018.


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a 192 responses to this question. 33% said they alter the way they speak ‘a lot’, 46% said ‘just a little bit’ and 21% said they did not alter the way they speak.


b 536 visitors completed the survey, of which 334 identified themselves as having a regional accent and were invited to complete the full research survey. Those who identified themselves as not having a regional accent only answered the final two questions: “Are you concerned that greater use of automated voice recognition in our homes may eventually stamp out regional accents?” and “Do you think companies are doing enough to cater for regional accents in automated voice recognition?”.


c  444 responses to this question. 18% said they are ‘very concerned’ that greater use of automated voice recognition in our homes may eventually stamp out regional accents. 30% said they are ‘slightly concerned’ and 52% said ‘no – not concerned’.


d 303 responses to this question. 33% said they use ‘Siri’, 17% use ‘Google Assistant’, 15% use ‘Amazon Echo/Alexa’, 5% responded ‘other’ and 30% said they did not own a personal digital assistant.


e 402 responses to this question. 11% said companies ‘are doing enough’, 41% said companies ‘should do more’, 30% were ‘unsure’ and 18% said ‘I don’t think they need to cater for regional accents’.

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