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Irish tech startup helps kids' voices be heard
00:52 - Source: CNN
CNN Business  — 

If you mention “voice technology,” most people think of Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri or Microsoft’s Cortana.

While personal artificial intelligence (AI) assistants are becoming increasingly integrated in our everyday lives, they are just one use of voice tech — and are primarily designed for adults.

Irish tech startup SoapBox Labs wants that to change. The Dublin-based firm has developed speech recognition technology designed specifically for children — and it’s already in use across a range of applications, from toys to education apps.

Children’s voices differ to that of adults, explains Patricia Scanlon, SoapBox founder and executive chair. Typically, they have a higher pitch or use different language or speech patterns, which regular voice technology cannot always pick up on, she says.

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.

Patricia Scanlon set up SoapBox Labs in 2013, after completing a PhD in speech recognition and machine learning.

Rather than tweaking the available voice technology already on the market, SoapBox built its voice engine from scratch — focusing on children aged two to 12. The company says it created a data set to train its AI system, made up of 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, hailing from a total of 192 countries.

“A system like ours is very bespoke and focused on getting high accuracy and age-appropriate responses for children,” says Scanlon.

Educate or play

This opens up a whole new market, for which there’s growing demand. More than 8 billion digital voice assistants are expected to be in use by 2024, up from 4 billion in 2020, and there is an increased focus on adapting the tech for children. In 2020, Amazon launched the next generation of the Echo Dot Kids Edition, its child-focused Alexa device.

SoapBox, which is selling a technology rather than a consumer product, has raised more than $12 million in funding since its founding in 2013 and has attracted more than 50 clients from around the world. The company says it falls into two categories: “educate” and “play.”

The technology can help a child learn to read or learn a language, says Scanlon. It acts as the “helpful adult,” responding immediately to the child and giving them one-on-one time, and it can also help to record a child’s progress and provide feedback to a teacher or parent, she adds.