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*

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

Energy consultant Michèle Deluca and city building inspector Sam Ellison are researching how to account for embodied carbon when calculating a new building’s carbon footprint. Photo: Bill Metcalfe
Nelson researches climate impact of embodied carbon in new buildings

Embodied carbon is the footprint of the manufacture and transport of building materials

The Quartz Creek watershed is located in the area behind the small community of Ymir south of Nelson. Photo: Tyler Harper
Timber companies swap management of controversial Ymir watershed

Fruitvale’s ATCO Wood Products is now overseeing Quartz Creek

Toronto Public Health nurse Lalaine Agarin makes preparations at Toronto’s mass vaccination clinic, Jan. 17, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
3 deaths, 234 new cases of COVID-19 in Interior Health over the weekend

One death connected to outbreak at Kamloops’ Royal Inland Hospital, where 20 patients and 28 staff have tested positive

The trial of Harry Richardson began Monday at the Nelson courthouse. File photo
Trial of man accused of shooting RCMP officer near Argenta in 2019 begins

Harry Richardson is facing five charges in a Nelson courtroom

Gerald Cordeiro of Kalesnikoff Lumber Ltd. says the company is looking for a non-profit organization to take over and run its proposed agroforestry project. Photo: Bill Metcalfe
Logging company proposes agroforestry project for Nelson area

Kalesnikoff Lumber is floating the idea of growing trees in conjunction with food crops

Rolling seven-day average of cases by B.C. health authority to Jan. 21. Fraser Health in purple, Vancouver Coastal red, Interior Health orange, Northern Health green and Vancouver Island blue. (B.C. Centre for Disease Control)
2nd COVID vaccine doses on hold as B.C. delivery delayed again

New COVID-19 cases slowing in Fraser Health region

FILE – Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivers his opening remarks at a news conference outside Rideau cottage in Ottawa, Tuesday, January 19, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Vaccine CEO ‘very, very clear’ that Canada’s contracts will be honoured: Trudeau

Trudeau says he spoke to Moderna CEO on the morning of Jan. 26

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Ben Tyler was working on a Nicola area ranch when he disappeared. File photo
Ben Tyler was working on a Nicola area ranch when he disappeared. File photo
2 years after his riderless horse was found, police believe Merritt cowboy was killed

Two years after he went missing, Ben Tyner’s family makes video plea for information

A ground worker wearing a face mask to curb the spread of COVID-19 unloads lobsters from a WestJet Airlines flight at Vancouver International Airport, in Richmond, B.C., on Thursday, January 21, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Trudeau teases stricter travel measures; Canadians flying to U.S. now need COVID test

Prime minister says measures need to not hurt imports and essential trade

Seats in the waiting area of domestic departures lounge of Calgary International Airport are seen with caution tape on them on June 9, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
3-in-4 Canadians in favour of banning interprovincial travel: Poll

According to Research Co., 80 per cent of Canadians would like to see restrictions imposed

The shirts sell for $45, with 30 per cent of proceeds from each sale going to Battered Women’s Support Services in Vancouver. (Madame Premier/Sarah Elder-Chamanara)
Canadian company launches ‘hysterical’ T-Shirt to combat health officials’ use of word

A partnership with Tamara Taggart will see women broadcast the word on a T-shirt or tote bag

ICBC has seen savings on crash and injury claims in the COVID-19 pandemic, with traffic on B.C. roads reduced. (Penticton Western News)
ICBC opens online calculator for rate savings starting in May

Bypassing courts expected to save 20% on average

Most Read