Project Euphonia to aid speech, hearing impaired

Voice interfaces are more common than ever, but they are not equally accessible. For example, if you have a speech disorder cause by a neurological impairment like ALS or multiple sclerosis, then using Google Assistant or Amazon’s Alexa will be off-limits to you. In today’s tech environment, that means missing out on a lot.

Google is now launching a new initiative to make speech technology more accessible to those with disabilities called Project Euphonia. The biggest focus of Euphonia is to collect more voice data from people with impaired speech. This is intended to remedy the problem of AI bias created by limited training data. Because speech software like Google Assistant is built to respond to the majority of voices, it does not work for those in the minority — such as people with voice impairments.

To fix this, Google is asking people around the world to submit their voice sample. It hopes by collecting this data it can improve its algorithms, eventually integrating the updates into Google Assistant.

In addition, the company is working on new interactive AI systems that recognize actions like gestures and facial expressions. That would mean people with severe disabilities who cannot speak at all could also use technology like smart home speakers and lights.

At its recent I/O conference, Google also unveiled a prototype app called Live Relay, which uses on-device speech recognition and text-to-speech conversion to help anyone who cannot hear or speak to hold a phone conversation.

It would be helpful to individuals with hearing impairments, letting them see instant transcriptions of what their conversational partner is saying, but could also help users who just do not want to speak. If you are in a public place for example, you can just type into your phone and what you write will be turned into speech at the other end.

However, Live Relay is only a prototype for now which Google says is “still in the research phase.” There’s no firm timetable for when it might be released to the public.

“Fundamental AI research which enables new products for people with disabilities is an important way we drive our mission forward,” said Google CEO Sundar Pichai onstage at the I/O. “These projects will ultimately result in products that work better for all of us. It’s the perfect example of what we mean by building a more helpful Google for everyone.”