AI assistants work perfectly in the UK – unless you're from Cardiff, Glasgow, Liverpool, Birmingham, Belfast...

Folk outside London cry: Why doesn't Alexa understand me?


To those of us born here, Britain is a wondrous cornucopia of accents and dialects. To visitors, like US-bred AI assistants, people outside of London may as well not speak English.

Such is the conclusion reached by comparison website Uswitch, which found that smart speakers from the likes of Google and Amazon have difficulty understanding more than 23 per cent of UK accents.

The firm's research homed in on accents in 30 Brit cities and recorded each asking the AI assistant 10 everyday questions or commands. The cities were then scored out of 10 on voice clarity; the higher the score, the more errors encountered.

Another pointer that helped was to look at how many times people from these cities searched: "Why doesn't Alexa/Google understand me?" Google's keyword planner was used to collect the data, which was then added to the above metrics to deliver an overall score.

The questions were simple stuff, preceded by the device's wake word: What is the weather like today?; What is the time?; Play the next song, please; Set an alarm for *time*; What is the date today?; Play *radio station or song*; Could you turn it down, please; How do you spell *word*?; Mute/unmute; Please can you turn off the lights?

Easy, right? Not if your received pronunciation needs work. The top five cities that AI assistants struggled to understand all have their own regional accents – Cardiff in Wales came first with a score of 82 followed by Glasgow in Scotland (77), Liverpool (70) and Birmingham (65), both in England, and Belfast in Northern Ireland (64).

At the other end of the scale, the English capital of London was the easiest to understand with a low score of 11 followed by Lincoln (15), Chester (16), Derby (21), and Cambridge (also 21).

The full report can be found here and shows a clear north-south divide, suggesting that the training models used to inform the devices are biased towards a generic strain of English accent.

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Nick Baker, broadband expert at Uswitch.com, commented: "Smart speakers are becoming an integral part of many modern-day homes. While most of us find them useful it's clear that more needs to be done to make voice recognition features smoother. The use of artificial intelligence in products is only going to increase, and as it grows in popularity it's important that features are accessible to all. The more we use virtual assistants the better they will get at understanding us. Some brands are already taking steps to allow assistants to learn about our accents which should avoid alienating customers and improve user experience."

Perhaps it would help if Americans realised that Brits don't all sound like Giles from Buffy The Vampire Slayer. ®

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