Lost In Translation
Mother Jones|March/April 2021
Hey Siri, why don’t digital assistants understand people who don’t sound like white Americans?
By Sinduja Rangarajan

EVERY EVENING LAST SUMMER, after I’d shut down my work laptop, my 3-year-old daughter and I would approach our Google Home smart speaker and yell, “Hey Google, can you play ‘Aankh Marey’ from the movie Simmba?” We’d hold our breaths and wait for a response. The digital assistant would then repeat the name of the Bollywood song we’d requested in its default standard American accent.

We’d rejoice and dance when the assistant played the right number, which happened about half the time. My daughter was going to a Bollywood dance class and we’d finally found a use for the device that my husband had won at a tech conference.

Often, however, it would mishear our requests and play something else. My daughter and I would look at each other and chuckle, like the only people in the room who got a joke. We’d roll our eyes and bond over our assistant’s incompetence. These moments turned out to be funny and special, and secretly, I enjoyed the role reversal of having an assistant who sounded like a stereotypical American. When would that happen in real life?

Yet several days into our routine, I noticed something strange. My daughter and I were contorting our mouths to pronounce the names of Bollywood songs with an American accent. I don’t know if our exaggerated Midwestern accents improved Google Home’s hit rate or if we were doing it unconsciously so we felt like we were being understood. Either way, the gadget that had entered our house as a helper had turned into an intruder. Not just an intruder that could listen to our private conversations, but an intruder that was telling us how we should speak our own language in our own home. I’d been wrong about our reversed power dynamic.

My hunch was confirmed when I spoke with Halcyon Lawrence, an assistant professor of technical communication and information design at Towson University who studies user accessibility and design for voice recognition systems such as Google Assistant, Amazon’s Alexa, and Apple’s Siri. “Your daughter is being disciplined by Google Home. You are being disciplined,” she told me. This artificial intelligence– powered machine, she explained, either understands users’ accents based on its programming or it doesn’t. If it misunderstands something, it just assumes it knows what it’s hearing and powers through its mistake. It’s essentially a one-way feedback loop where humans must change their behavior to make the machine run more smoothly.

“If I am going to use this technology then I must assimilate. I must code-switch,” Lawrence said. “I find there is something inherently violent about that, because it is no different than the kind of language discipline that we faced when we were colonized.” Like most postcolonial English speakers, I float in an in-between land of languages. I speak four Indian languages and I speak English fluently. Yet my accent and dialect are seen not as marks of erudition or class like British accents, but as punchlines that reinforce stereotypes. (Think Apu from The Simpsons.)

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