BBC voice assistant that speaks with a Northern accent – just like in the war

The BBC is making its own 'Northern' voice assistantThe BBC is making its own 'Northern' voice assistant
The BBC is making its own 'Northern' voice assistant
During the war there was outrage and disbelief when a Northern voice was heard reading the BBC news headlines. It belonged to the actor, entertainer and Yorkshireman Wilfred Pickles, who had been at pains to tone down his West Riding dialect for the purpose.

As recently as the 1980s, the controller of Radio 4 was receiving complaints that the shipping forecast had been entrusted to a newsreader with a Scots lilt.

However, today it’s received pronunciation that is out of fashion, and the corporation’s latest development is proof if proof were needed. “Beeb” is a voice assistant similar to Amazon Alexa. You talk to it and it talks back to you.

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The BBC announced last year that it was developing such a product, to a reaction of mostly raised eyebrows from commentators who warned that it would never be able to compete with either Amazon or the other tech giants, whose smart speakers are now in an estimated one in five homes.

Now, the first iteration of Beeb has been released for public testing, with what its developers describe as a “warm and friendly” male Northern voice to differentiate it from the mid-Atlantic female tones of its rivals.

The idea is that you say to it, “Hey, Beeb – what’s the weather going to be like today?” and it proceeds to tell you in a synthetic Wilfred Pickles voice. It will also play on-demand radio, podcasts, news and jokes from BBC2’s QI and The Mash Report. This is a very limited set of functions, but the intention is that it will grow eventually into something more useful.

The BBC says it picked a masculine Northern voice so that no-one would think it subservient or sterile. But what is the point of having a voice assistant at all, especially as the BBC has no intention of producing its own physical hardware to compete with Amazon’s Echo or Google Home devices? The answer is in the data that those systems and others collect. If we all start using them, the corporation is worried that they will undermine it by recommending their own programmes in preference to those from Broadcasting House. “The threat to us is, ‘You’ve finished The Archers, here’s a Joe Rogan podcast’,” said Grace Boswood, of the BBC’s design and engineering department, referring to a presenter who is a sort of American Ben Archer, but less lifelike.

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The worry is well-founded. The BBC has already been displaced on many smart TVs by Netflix and other streaming services which load by default when you turn the set on, rather than BBC1 or the channel you last watched. Now, podcasts from both sides of the Atlantic are eroding Radio 4’s monopoly on non-news, speech radio, and this at a time when the corporation it is fighting to justify the continuance of the licence fee.

But the use of the kind of “artificial intelligence” software on which Beeb relies is not without controversy. There was disquiet last year when it emerged that big companies were recording conversations with users, in order to “improve” their voice assistants, and the BBC has not ruled out taking a similar approach, although it says it will not do so by default or without permission.

The hope is that Beeb will be built into several existing and future platforms, possibly including Amazon’s, as well as the BBC’s own Sounds app and perhaps car stereos. For the time being, you can hear the Wilfred Pickles of the future by joining the early adopters in trying out the embryo version. This involves signing up to the Windows Insider programme from a PC and then downloading Beeb from the Microsoft app store, using your BBC iPlayer account details.

Editor’s note: first and foremost - and rarely have I written down these words with more sincerity - I hope this finds you well.

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