Ed Casagrande holds his daughter Emma in this undated handout image. Casagrande, chair of the Canadian Down Syndrome Society, is hoping the society’s partnership with Google will help people like his six-year-old daughter Emma access improved voice-recognition technology. The society is encouraging those with Down Syndrome to record phrases on its Project Understood site to add to the tech giant’s database aimed at creating voice-recognition technology that can understand people with various speech impairments. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Hillier Photography *MANDATORY CREDIT*

Ed Casagrande holds his daughter Emma in this undated handout image. Casagrande, chair of the Canadian Down Syndrome Society, is hoping the society’s partnership with Google will help people like his six-year-old daughter Emma access improved voice-recognition technology. The society is encouraging those with Down Syndrome to record phrases on its Project Understood site to add to the tech giant’s database aimed at creating voice-recognition technology that can understand people with various speech impairments. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Hillier Photography *MANDATORY CREDIT*

Canada’s Down syndrome community helps teach Google how to understand speech

The project will help those whose physiological difference make it hard for Google to understand them

Anyone who’s been frustrated with digital voice assistants Google, Alexa or Siri misunderstanding commands to play a certain song or access online information may find themselves pointlessly arguing with technology, but imagine the ubiquitous devices messing up every third word you say.

That’s what Google estimates people with Down syndrome experience because of speech difficulties associated with physiological differences in their mouths.

The Canadian Down Syndrome Society launched a campaign this week to help Google improve its voice-recognition technology by encouraging people with the condition to record phrases online as part of Project Understood to train the tech giant’s technology to better understand those with speech impairments.

Matthew MacNeil, 29, volunteered to donate his voice by logging on to a website and recording phrases such as ”the boy ran down the path,” “flowers grow in a garden” and “strawberry jam is sweet.”

The society partnered with Google, which launched Project Euphonia last year to improve their voice-recognition systems for people with speech impairment, starting with those who have amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, which gradually weakens muscles and affects speech.

MacNeil’s efforts to use a digital voice assistant have been frustrating.

“I had to repeat myself many times. Then I gave up,” he said from Tillsonburg, Ont.

The goal is to use the technology to become more independent, said MacNeil, who works at a grocery store collecting carts, a word he substituted after ”buggies” wasn’t understood.

That’s something he’s experienced multiple times with the Google Home assistant, which mistook his hometown of Tillsonburg as “smoke” and the Ontario city of Peterborough as “people” before announcing: “My apologies. I don’t understand.”

Ed Casagrande, chair of the Canadian Down Syndrome Society, said a three-month trial had already been done with Google before this week’s campaign began, as 10 people with Down syndrome recorded an average of 1,500 phrases each into the online platform.

He said people with the condition anywhere in the world could use the Project Understood site, or Project Euphonia, to record their voice and add to a growing database. Those who participate must be aged 18 or over.

Casagrande has great hopes for how better voice-recognition technology could one day help his six-year-old daughter Emma, who has Down syndrome.

“When I think about my daughter and the future and in speaking with people with Down syndrome what I hear is the same thing as a typical person in terms of wanting to be independent and work and socialize and have relationships,” he said from Guelph, Ont.

“I just feel that this technology will allow a person with Down syndrome to get one step closer to independence so that when my daughter is ready to work, 20 years from now, she’s able to speak into some voice technology device to call that driverless car to pick her up to bring her to work or bring her back home, or to check the weather and schedule appointments or what have you.”

Julie Cattiau, product manager of Google’s artificial intelligence team, said millions of voices were recorded for the company’s voice-recognition systems for users with no accent or speech difficulties, so a system that would understand the speech patterns of people with various disabilities will need even more recordings and transcriptions of what is being said in order to work.

“Our goal is that in the future, hopefully, Google products can work a lot better for people, even if they have speech that is impaired or that sounds different because of a neurological condition, such as Down syndrome or ALS,” she said.

“We will be collecting phrases for as long as it takes for us to make progress,” Cattiau said. “Until we have a large enough data set we won’t be able to answer questions such as do we need to train models for individual people or can people benefit from other people’s voice recordings, which, of course, is the dream because that’s a much more scalable approach.”

ALSO READ: Victoria swimmer with down syndrome completes 5-kilometre swim

Camille Bains, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Capt. Alan Millbank, head of Nanaimo Fire Rescue’s Fire and Loss Prevention Division, takes photos of the scene of a blaze that heavily damaged two apartments on Wakesiah Avenue on Sunday, April 18. (Chris Bush/News Bulletin)
RCMP, Nanaimo Fire Rescue investigating suspicious apartment blaze

Fire destroyed ground-floor apartment, spread to second storey at Wakesiah Avenue complex

B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry speaks at a press conference Monday, April 18. (B.C. Government image)
New COVID-19 cases tick down on the central Island

New cases held to single digits three days in a row

Chakalaka Bar & Grill remains open in defiance of orders from Island Health to close. (Cole Schisler photo)
Island Health seeks injunction against restaurant defying COVID-19 orders

VIHA says Chakalaka Bar and Grill also violating water and sewer regulations with RV hook-ups

Nanaimo RCMP hope the public can help them find a 16-year-old who has been missing since Sunday. (Photo submitted)
UPDATE: 16-year-old Nanaimo boy located safe

Teen had been reported missing last week and it was thought he may have left town

The Regional District of Nanaimo plans to make its operations more efficient as it works on long-term goals around carbon-neutrality. (PQB News file photo)
Regional District of Nanaimo works to become carbon neutral by 2032

RDN committee of the whole members endorse plan developed by consultant

In this image from NASA, NASA’s experimental Mars helicopter Ingenuity lands on the surface of Mars Monday, April 19, 2021. The little 4-pound helicopter rose from the dusty red surface into the thin Martian air Monday, achieving the first powered, controlled flight on another planet. (NASA via AP)
VIDEO: NASA’s Mars helicopter takes flight, 1st for another planet

The $85 million helicopter demo was considered high risk, yet high reward

Families of two of three workers killed in a train derailment near Field, B.C., in 2019 have filed lawsuits accusing Canadian Pacific of gross negligence. The derailment sent 99 grain cars and two locomotives off the tracks. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Families of workers killed in Field train derailment allege negligence in lawsuit

Lawsuits allege the workers weren’t provided a safe work environment

(New Westminster Police)
4 youth arrested after 30-person brawl in New Westminster leaves 1 seriously injured

Police are looking for witnesses who saw the incident take place

South Surrey’s Paul Cottrell, who works with the DFO, tows a grey whale out of Semiahmoo Bay Sunday. (Contributed photo)
Dead whale floating near White Rock towed to shore for necropsy

Animal has been dead since at least April 15

Wickaninnish (Clifford Atleo) plays the drum while singing the Nuu-chah-nulth song on the court steps in Vancouver In a picture from April 2018. Photo credit, Melody Charlie.
Five western Vancouver Island First Nations celebrate legal fishing victory

Court ruling confirms Nuu-chah-nulth fishing rights in case dating back to 2003

Sunday’s storm rocked one of the ferries crossing Kootenay Lake. Photo: Dirk Jonker
VIDEO: Storm makes for wild ferry ride across Kootenay Lake

The video was captured by ferry employee Dirk Jonker

Dr. Bonnie Henry gives her daily media briefing regarding Covid-19 for the province of British Columbia in Victoria, B.C, Monday, December 7, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Toddler marks youngest British Columbian to die related to COVID-19

Child one of eight people to die from virus this weekend

Pharmacist Barbara Violo arranges all the empty vials of the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines that she has provided to customers at the Junction Chemist which is a independent pharmacy during the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto, on Monday, April 19, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
B.C. to open up AstraZeneca vaccines for all people 40+, set up clinics in hot spots

A total of 13 neighbourhoods and communities will receive the AstraZeneca vaccine

Most Read