There Is a Racial Divide in Speech-Recognition Systems, Researchers Say

Yet another illustration of the limits of technology to recognize and adapt to diversity:

With an iPhone, you can dictate a text message. Put Amazon’s Alexa on your coffee table, and you can request a song from across the room.

But these devices may understand some voices better than others. Speech recognition systems from five of the world’s biggest tech companies — Amazon, Apple, Google, IBM and Microsoft — make far fewer errors with users who are white than with users who are black, according to a study published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The systems misidentified words about 19 percent of the time with white people. With black people, mistakes jumped to 35 percent. About 2 percent of audio snippets from white people were considered unreadable by these systems, according to the study, which was conducted by researchers at Stanford University. That rose to 20 percent with black people.

The study, which took an unusually comprehensive approach to measuring bias in speech recognition systems, offers another cautionary sign for A.I. technologies rapidly moving into everyday life.

Other studies have shown that as facial recognition systems move into police departments and other government agencies, they can be far less accurate when trying to identify women and people of color. Separate tests have uncovered sexist and racist behavior in “chatbots,” translation services, and other systems designed to process and mimic written and spoken language.

“I don’t understand why there is not more due diligence from these companies before these technologies are released,” said Ravi Shroff, a professor of statistics at New York University who explores bias and discrimination in new technologies. “I don’t understand why we keep seeing these problems.”

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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