Most people think of Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, or Microsoft’s Cortana when they hear “voice technology.”
While personal artificial intelligence (AI) assistants are becoming more prevalent in our daily lives, they are only one application of voice technology, and they are primarily targeted at adults.
SoapBox Labs, an Irish tech startup, wants to change that. The Dublin-based company has created speech recognition technology tailored for children, and it’s already in use in a variety of applications ranging from toys to educational apps.
Patricia Scanlon, founder and executive chair of SoapBox, explains how children’s voices differ from adults’. They usually have a higher pitch or use different language or speech patterns, which traditional voice technology can’t always pick up on, according to her.
It’s understandable that “an industry that has spent decades working on technology and only focusing on adults … runs into a fairly significant problem when they try to apply children to it,” she tells CNN Business.
Rather than tweaking existing voice technology, SoapBox created its own voice engine from the ground up, focusing on children aged two to twelve. Thousands of hours of children’s speech collected in real-world noisy environments — kitchens, classrooms, and cars — from kids of all ages, accents, and dialects from 192 countries were used to train the company’s AI system, according to the company.
“A system like ours is very bespoke and focused on getting high accuracy and age-appropriate responses for children,” says Scanlon.
This opens up a whole new market, one that is growing in popularity. By 2024, more than 8 billion digital voice assistants will be in use, up from 4 billion in 2020, and there will be a greater emphasis on adapting technology for children. Amazon will release the next generation of the Echo Dot Kids Edition, a child-friendly Alexa device, in 2020.
Since its founding in 2013, SoapBox, which sells technology rather than consumer goods, has raised more than $12 million in funding and attracted more than 50 clients from around the world. According to the company, it is divided into two categories: “educate” and “play.”
According to Scanlon, technology can assist a child in learning to read or learning a language. It serves as a “helpful adult,” responding quickly to the child and providing one-on-one time, as well as recording a child’s progress and providing feedback to a teacher or parent, she says.
SoapBox has forged alliances with online education firms such as Amplify in New York, the Florida Center for Reading Research, and Lingumi, a UK-based English learning app.
Toymakers and gaming companies are also using the technology to create voice-activated toys that can converse with children, as well as immersive virtual and augmented reality experiences.