Amazon’s voice assistant Alexa has been around in the UK since 2016 and since then smart speakers and their assistants have been spreading across the UK. From asking them to play the radio, set a timer, or even turn on a kettle or lightbulb, there are thousands of different things people rely on the tech for.
Like many working in this space, Mukul Devichand, executive editor of the BBC for Voice + AI, is interested in how voice is the next frontier of the internet. “In the way we’ve had these big changes in the past, like mobile phones and social platforms, you begin to realise this could be a really big change and people are talking to voice assistants to get a lot of what they need in life,” he says when we chat over Zoom.
This is one of the reasons the BBC is creating its own voice AI, named Beeb, to ensure it isn’t left behind in this new online world. Devichand says he wanted to “lean into” the phenomena because it could change the nature of the way the organisation relates to its audiences. “We need to think about what it means to be a public broadcaster in a world where people get things in their lives by talking to an assistant run by a big tech company.”
Devichand has been in this Voice + AI role at the BBC for over two years now. To its credit, the organisation has embraced the tech in a big way: recently the organisation started doing local briefings in Welsh language and has a Coronabot service on Facebook Messenger which allows people to ask the BBC what’s going on with the latest Covid-19 restrictions. “It’s interesting that people message the BBC and say, ‘BBC, what’s going on?’ They trust us. And we’re trying to answer those questions in a conversational way.”
Beeb was announced last year by the corporation and was recently released in a beta programme. At the moment, people can request things like live and on-demand radio, music mixes, BBC podcasts and local updates from weather to news. So far, so voice assistant. But the make up of the product is a little different from the other versions around.
Devichand says they brought on people who had been making audio and radio for years and gave them the challenge of making a warm and relatable voice for the AI. Particular effort went into giving the AI a personality. To do this they created a writers room of people from news, comedy, and dramas like Killing Eve and Fleabag. An “Inspire Me” feature will offer up a poem or a reading to entertain the listener - at the moment you can hear Christopher Eccelston read a poem in homage to NHS workers.
“Beeb is its own character. It has BBC DNA but it’s almost like a person that works at the BBC, a spirit that roams the internet with the curiosity energy of the BBC,” says Devichand.
The most notable thing about the beta Beeb is its male, Northern voice, quite different from the clipped female voices often found on other AIs. This was intentional. “We were really mindful of this debate that’s happening about many voice assistants having female voices and the term assistant implies that they’re trying to help you out and the whole stereotype of what that plays into.
“We really paid a lot of attention to that debate. Beeb doesn’t have a gender really or a name - it’s a coded spirit that we’re trying to not give a clear sense of that identity statement because we’re trying to do something that feels universal.”
Mukul's top things to say to Beeb
“OK Beeb, play Radio 1.”
“OK Beeb, play the All Day Chill Mix.”
“OK Beeb, update me.”
“OK Beeb, what’s my local weather?”
“OK Beeb, tell me a fact.”
“OK Beeb, inspire me.”
“OK Beeb, What do you look like?”
“OK Beeb, do you like Fleabag?”
“OK Beeb, nice to see you.”
Beeb has also been designed to understand different regional accents. Research conducted at the Life Science Centre in Newcastle Upon Tyne in 2018 found that 79 per cent of people changed their accents when conversing with their voice assistants leading to concerns that the tech could ‘stamp out regional accents.’ But with Beeb, the BBC is trying to make a truly British voice assistant, that can understand the UK’s varying degrees of accents without change.
“The world we are entering is one where human conversations with machines are seriously becoming a thing and at the moment those machines are mostly designed by big tech firms in the US and tech giants in China. For Britain to have its own voice assistant in the form of Beeb ... that’s a big deal and part of that is paying real attention to the diversity of the English language as spoken in these islands.”
Beeb won’t come in its own smart speaker package so the BBC is going to have to distribute it via partners and see what happens. Devichand emphasises that this is only the start for the voice AI and the learnings from the beta will help inform the next development stages. This will help the team fine-tune some of the tech aspects, such as how long do they expect people to pause between saying ‘Hey Beeb’, and then their request, as well as develop the values and content side of the product.
“We’re trying to do something distinctive that really stands for what [the BBC] stands for in the world, and do the things we can do. And we think that’s exciting,” adds Devichand.
- To access the Beeb beta programme, you need to have a Windows computer and be a member of Microsoft’s Insider programme. Once you’ve done that, update your PC to the recent Windows 10 May 2020 update and download the Beeb BETA app from the Microsoft Store to get started.