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

Interior Health nurses administer Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines to seniors and care aids in Kelowna on Tuesday, March 16. (Phil McLachlan/Kelowna Capital News)
69 new cases of COVID-19 in Interior Health

The total number of cases in the region is now at 9,840 since the pandemic began

Kelowna General Hospital (File photo)
Interior Health hospitals not strained by rising COVID case counts

While provincial hospitalizations rise, health care systems in the B.C. Interior remain robust, say officials

School District 20 is advising the public there has been a positive case of COVID-19 at the Trail high school. Photo: Trail Times
District confirms positive COVID case at Trail high school

The person is at home self-isolating, administration advised on Wednesday

Nelson-Creston MLA Brittny Anderson will advise Premier John Horgan in youth issues and needs. Photo: Submitted
Nelson-Creston MLA named premier’s special advisor on youth

Brittny Anderson is the youngest member of the B.C. legislature

COVID-19 numbers continue to rise in the Kootenays. Illustration: BC Centre for Disease Control
Highest weekly number of new COVID-19 cases in 2021 for Nelson

The Nelson local health area had 13 new cases in early April

A woman wears a protective face covering to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 as he walks past the emergency entrance of Vancouver General Hospital in Vancouver, B.C., Friday, April 9, 2021. COVID-19 cases have been on a steady increase in the province of British Columbia over the past week. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Top doctor warns B.C.’s daily cases could reach 3,000 as COVID hospitalizations surge

There are more than 400 people in hospital, with 125 of them in ICU

The father of Aaliyah Rosa planted a tree and laid a plaque in her memory in 2018. (Langley Advance Times files)
Final witness will extend Langley child murder trial into May or June

Lengthy trial began last autumn with COVID and other factors forcing it to take longer than expected

The corner of 96th Avenue and Glover Road in Fort Langley now has traffic signals, and new “touchless” signal activation buttons. (Matthew Claxton/Langley Advance Times)
Busy Fort Langley intersection gets ‘touchless’ crosswalk signals

The new traffic light started operation in April

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

A crossing guard stops traffic as students wearing face masks to curb the spread of COVID-19 arrive at Ecole Woodward Hill Elementary School, in Surrey, B.C., on Tuesday, February 23, 2021. A number of schools in the Fraser Health region, including Woodward Hill, have reported cases of the B.1.7.7 COVID-19 variant first detected in the U.K. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
COVID-infected students in Lower Mainland schools transmitting to 1 to 2 others: data

Eight to 13 per cent of COVID cases among students in the Lower Mainland were acquired in schools, B.C. says

Norm Scott, president of Royal Canadian Legion Branch # 91, is disappointed the Legion does not qualify for COVID financial assistance from the provincial government. (Black Press Media file photo)
B.C.’s pandemic aid package passing Legion branches by

Federal non-profit status stymies provincial assistance eligibility

Latest modelling by public health shows cases generated by COVID-19 infections into places where it can spread quickly. (B.C. Centre for Disease Control)
Industrial sites, pubs, restaurants driving COVID-19 spread in B.C.

Infection risk higher in offices, retail, warehouses, farms

Vancouver Canucks forward J.T. Miller said it would be “very challenging and not very safe” for him and his teammates to play as scheduled on Friday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Canucks’ return to ice postponed again after players voice COVID health concerns

Friday’s game against the Edmonton Oilers was called off after the team met virtually with the NHLPA

B.C. Attorney General David Eby, Minister Responsible for Housing. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
B.C. announces $2B for affordable, middle-income family home projects

HousingHub financing to encourage more developers, groups – with low-interest loans – to build affordable homes

Most Read