Canadian Down Syndrome Society teams with Google to improve voice recognition

Who: Canadian Down Syndrome Society (CDSS), FCB and Google, with Glossy Inc. for PR, Radar handling production, Outsider Editorial for post and Bliss Interactive website design.

What: “Project Understood,” a new program from the CDSS—coinciding with Canadian Down Syndrome Week—to educate the public about the challenges faced by people living with Down syndrome. The goal is to make voice assistants more effective by training Google’s software to recognize the distinct speech patterns of those living with Down syndrome.

When & Where: CDSS has been working with Google for three months to explore what improvements were possible. For the next phase, which launched this weekend, CDSS and FCB are recruiting people to “donate” their voice to “Project Understood.”

Why: Existing voice recognition software isn’t great at understanding the voices of people living with Down Syndrome—missing about one in three words. That deficiency in the software is particularly frustrating because the technology holds unique promise for the community.

“For people with Down syndrome, it has the potential for creating greater independence. From daily reminders to keeping in contact with loved ones and accessing directions, voice technology can help facilitate infinite access to tools and learnings that could lead to enriched lives,” said Laura LaChance, interim executive director with CDSS in a release.

Fixing the technology: Through Project Euphonia, Google was already working to improve the accuracy of voice recognition software to be more effective for the speech impaired.

CDSS provided a small number of people to see if the software could be improved for Down syndrome users. “It’s exciting to see the success of that test and move into the next phase of collecting voice samples that represent the vocal diversity of the community,” said Julie Cattiau, product manager at Google. Voice recognition gets better through machine learning, and machine learning gets better with more data. Project Understood asks people to “donate” their voice (the data) so the software can get better, faster.

“The more people who participate, the more likely Google will be able to eventually improve speech recognition for everyone,” said Cattiau.

How: For the last three years, FCB has created groundbreaking, award-winning work that symbolically gave people living with Down syndrome a louder voice (2016, 2017, and 2018). This latest effort will literally make voices of the Down syndrome community better understood.

A series of recruitment videos invites people to donate their voices at by recording themselves saying phrases that Google adds to the machine learning model. The recruitment drive is entirely digital, with just a small paid social push to drive awareness.

Quote: “With our previous campaign ‘Down Syndrome Answers,’ people with Down syndrome became the experts. Now, by sharing their voices with Google, they’re becoming the teachers,” said FCB’s chief creative officer Nancy Crimi-Lamanna. “They’re not only taking the lead on helping to ensure a more accessible future for people with Down syndrome, but in the process, demonstrating just how capable they are by teaching Google, one of the smartest technologies on earth.”

David Brown