The BBC — aka, the British Broadcasting Corporation, aka the Beeb, aka Auntie — is getting into the voice assistant game.
The Guardian reports the plan to launch an Alexa rival, which has been given the working title ‘Beeb’, and will apparently be light on features given the Corp’s relatively slender developer resources vs major global tech giants.
The BBC’s own news site says the digital voice assistant will launch next year without any proprietary hardware to house it. Instead the corporation is designing the software to work on “all smart speakers, TVs and mobiles”.
Why is a publicly funded broadcaster ploughing money into developing an AI when the market is replete with commercial offerings — from Amazon’s Alexa to Google’s Assistant, Apple’s Siri and Samsung’s Bixby to name a few? The intent is to “experiment with new programmes, features and experiences without someone else’s permission to build it in a certain way”, a BBC spokesperson told BBC news.
The corporation is apparently asking its own staff to contribute voice data to help train the AI to understand the country’s smorgasbord of regional accents.
“Much like we did with BBC iPlayer, we want to make sure everyone can benefit from this new technology, and bring people exciting new content, programmes and services — in a trusted, easy-to-use way,” the spokesperson added. “This marks another step in ensuring public service values can be protected in a voice-enabled future.”
While at first glance the move looks reactionary and defensive, set against the years of dev already ploughed into cutting edge commercial voice AIs, the BBC has something those tech giant rivals lack: Not just regional British accents on tap — but easy access to a massive news and entertainment archive to draw on to design voice assistants that could serve up beloved personalities as a service.
Imagine being able to summon the voice of Tom Baker, aka Doctor Who, to tell you what the (cosmic) weather’s like — or have the Dad’s Army cast of characters chip in to read out your to-do list. Or get a summary of the last episode of The Archers from a familiar Ambridge resident.
Or what about being able to instruct ‘Beeb’ to play some suitably soothing or dramatic sound effects to entertain your kids?
On one level a voice AI is just a novel delivery mechanism. The BBC looks to have spotted that — and certainly does not lack for rich audio content that could be repackaged to reach its audience on verbal command and extend its power to entertain and delight.
When it comes to rich content, the same cannot be said of the tech giants who have pioneered voice AIs.
There have been some attempts to force humor (AIs that crack bad jokes) and/or shoehorn in character — largely flat-footed. As well as some ethically dubious attempts to pass off robot voices as real. All of which is to be expected, given they’re tech companies not entertainers. Dev not media is their DNA.
The BBC is coming at the voice assistant concept from the other way round: Viewing it as a modern mouthpiece for piping out more of its programming.
So while Beeb can’t hope to compete at the same technology feature level as Alexa and all the rest, the BBC could nonetheless show the tech giants a trick or two about how to win friends and influence people.
At the very least it should give their robotic voices some much needed creative competition.
It’s just a shame the Beeb didn’t tickle us further by christening its proto AI ‘Auntie’. A crisper two syllable trigger word would be hard to utter…