English professor Halcyon Lawrence uncovers bias in speech technology.
You have a question. You need information.
Maybe you call, “Hey Siri,” and expect your digital device to answer your query.
But what happens when Siri is confronted with an accent or dialect not considered “standard” English — say Latinx or AAVE (African American vernacular English)?
According to Department of English assistant professor Halcyon Lawrence, whose melodic voice reveals her Caribbean lineage, that’s when communication breaks down.
“If I don’t adjust my accent,” she says, “I don’t get understood by the device.”
Forcing speakers to assimilate to a standard accent in order to be understood by voice technology can leave users frustrated and disheartened, explains Lawrence, and it reflects what is termed “linguistic imperialism,” embedded into the design of voice technology.
Exploring this bias in speech technology and how to correct it is just one of Lawrence’s research areas emphasizing inclusion of marginalized communities, and it’s the topic of her soon-to-be published book chapter titled “Siri Disciplines,” in a collection from MIT Press called “Your Computer is on Fire.”
In the classroom, Lawrence, who teaches courses in professional writing, technical communication and information design, infuses this research into her teaching by helping students see ways that bias can infiltrate their own communication, even when they don’t mean for it to happen.
She also promotes an inclusive classroom by meeting with every student one-on-one within the first month of class to get to know them and understand their challenges. This way, she says, she can take students’ circumstances into account when creating class policies.
Starting at TU in 2018, Lawrence spent her early career teaching at colleges in Trinidad and Tobago, Chicago and Atlanta.
All were wonderful experiences, and Towson University follows suit.
“There’s something special at Towson,” she says. “I think it’s the students.”