Google Home’s language expansion leaves Alexa behind | Tech Industry

With the recent launch of Spanish language integration into Google Home, Google is poised to gain even more ground against Amazon’s Alexa-powered devices. The addition of Spanish language functionality expands Google’s share in the U.S. digital assistant market and beyond into Mexico and Spain. Alexa currently supports only three languages, including English, German, and Japanese, while Google Home is set to offer over 30 languages before 2019. As Alexa falls behind, many wonder why it’s taken so long to make digital assistants multilingual.

Alexa could be lost in translation

“No hay pedo” is Mexican slang that means “there’s no problem,” but it translates to English as “there’s no fart.” Doesn’t quite work, does it? Language and culture are filled with so many nuances that are specific to that region and dialect. Even English has many variations of phrases and words depending on where you are from. A digital assistant knowing and speaking a language is different than just translating.

“How do you address a friend versus an acquaintance? When is an appropriate time for dinner? What jokes are appropriate? What jokes are funny?” said Kelly Davis, head of machine learning at Mozilla in an email interview for this article. “The list is endless and not only language-specific but culture-specific. Jokes that work in Spain may be offensive in Mexico.”

Accounting for these differences takes an immense amount of time and effort. Companies must perform research to understand these small nuances and render them into code. Which means that even the largest companies in the world, like Amazon, have to invest several years into localizing their assistants. Amazon has even made moves to crowdsource learning with Cleo, a language tool powered by Alexa that learns from its users.

“You will need thousands of hours of this data from tens of thousands of people, and this must be done for each language and for each accent of that language you want to recognize. This is painstaking work, and there are no silver bullets,” said Davis.

Missed opportunities in the meantime

Although we’re finally seeing tech behemoths like Google expand their offerings to individuals who speak a wider variety of languages, companies that create digital assistants will always prioritize majority languages and cash markets. So while Amazon is covering the markets its deems most profitable at the present moment, it’s still leaving out many Spanish-speaking countries around the world and a large portion of the United States that consists of Spanish-speaking Americans.

An example of one of Alexa’s major fails this summer is the inability to answer queries about the World Cup in one of the most common languages among soccer fans. There are over 20 Spanish language channels and networks offered in the U.S. alone, which means Amazon is missing out on household DVR integrations and common inquiries like “Alexa, ¿a qué hora es el partido de la Copa Mundial?” (Alexa, what time is the World Cup on?). These simple integrations result in a large number of units sold that will likely go to Google Home until Alexa devices support more languages.

But the potential impact of adding multi-language support to digital assistants stretches far beyond scheduling meetings, changing the channel, and controlling a smart home. Assistants with the ability to speak more languages offer opportunities to make the world more accessible for their users in myriad ways.

“Think about how speech recognition could be used by minority language speakers to enable more people to have access to technology and the services the internet can provide, even if they never learned how to read?” said Davis. “Regular market forces will not help reach these people.”

The world of digital assistants is expanding. These huge advances in technology are appearing in more households than ever, and with the added pressure of increased language offerings from Google Home, we can only hope Amazon will catch up by making it possible for us to say “Hola Alexa” soon.

Cassie Tolhurst is a writer who contributes to Geek Girl and Stanford College Puzzle.

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