Voice assistants have a hard time understanding nearly a quarter of regional accents in the United Kingdom, according to a new study by British price comparison and consumer advice firm Uswitch. Both Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa struggle in particular with Welsh and Scottish accents, but nowhere in the country did voice assistants perform perfectly.
Uswitch looked at 30 different British accents in cities around the country. Locals in each area recorded asking their voice assistant 10 questions. The resulting voice clarity rating out of 10 was then scored were combined with the number of times a month people in those cities searched for “why doesn’t Alexa/Google understand me?” on Google every month to create the final score, with lower scores indicating better understanding. People in Cardiff, Wales have the most trouble being understood by voice assistants, with a seven in voice clarity and 1,550 monthly online searches asking why Alexa doesn’t understand a user. Glasgow in Scotland isn’t far behind Cardiff, with Liverpool taking the dubious honor of third place on the list.
All of the most misunderstood accents in the UK are famously distinct in one way or another. In comparison, the voice assistants were best understood in London, Lincoln, and Chester. In London, there were just 200 searches a month asking why Alexa didn’t understand a user and only 75 asking about Google Assistant. The reasons why accents in those English cities are better understood by voice assistants aren’t definitive, but it’s certainly more likely that American AIs would be trained on a London accent ahead of one from the north or far west. Still, as can be seen in the map above, every city had at least some reports of difficulty getting a voice assistant to understand them, so a Lincoln accent is no guarantee of a rapport with Alexa or Google Assistant.
More than 5.8 million homes in the UK use AI assistants, a fifth of the country. And that number is set to grow thanks to increased use of voice assistants by people staying home during the COVID-19 health crisis. That’s on top of the new BBC voice assistant, Beeb, currently undergoing beta tests. Google and Amazon are aware of the market opportunities in the UK and both companies are trying to get an edge on the voice assistant market. For instance, Amazon began sales in the UK recently of its Echo Auto device which integrates Alexa into cars. Amazon is also trying to grow its Alexa developer community in the UK as part of that work. The company is working with VGC Partners to find and fund early-stage voice tech startups in the UK, bringing them into the new British Alexa Incubator Program.
“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,” Uswitch broadband expert Nick Baker said in a statement. “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.”