- Tech startup Sanas has been accused of being racist with its “accent translation” technology.
- AI and tech industry experts say the startup’s mission is to justify racism, a form of “digital whitening.”
- But some call center agents told Insider they believe the technology will enhance their daily work.
“Accent translation” startup Sanus faced racism and discrimination allegations last week after being accused of manipulating non-American accents to sound “whiter.” It uses speech recognition technology to change the user’s accent in near real time. Their main target seems to be foreign call center employees.
Sanas co-founder and COO Sharath Keshava Narayana denied the startup’s technology was discriminatory, telling Insider that the company always intended to extend its translation model to include other accents. According to Keshava Narayana, a demo on the company’s website converts an Indian accent to a standard American accent and only features the first model.
“Not only are Americans struggling to understand the language of Indians, but vice versa,” Keshava Narayana told Insider. We believe this will be a localized solution as it is growing.”
According to the startup, Sanas is testing translation models in other countries such as India and the Philippines, and plans to bring Accent Translation to Latin America and South Korea as well.
However, some tech industry experts have accused the startup’s product of being a form of “digital whitening.” AI and technology angel investor and CEO of female-led computer programming group FrauenLoop Nakeema Stefflbauer told Insider that the problem with Sanas’ response was that “accents indicate power and belonging.”
“When this becomes commoditized, there’s only one direction in which everyone flocks,” she said. “It’s not understanding, it’s comfort. This technology does not guarantee the comfort of fictional call center employees.”
She said that until Sanas touted the technology to its Global South customers as a tool to better understand and communicate with Americans and Western Europeans, “whether it was intended or not. , is a one-way ‘solution’ that reinforces racialized hierarchies,” he added.
AI and technology industry experts and call center employees told Insider about the cultural costs and potential benefits that Sanas will bring. The company says the purpose of its technology is to make people all over the world sound more “local” on their phones, but Steflbauer and others in his AI field say the startup’s We are concerned that this is another step towards homogenizing the world. to perpetuate.
“What is this trying to tell us about what the future will sound like and how we should experience voices and communicate with people online?” Steflbauer said. Said. “Who should we communicate with and who should we never contact?”
Tech industry expert says accent ‘translation’ is a form of ‘digital whitening’
Sanas, which has raised $32 million in funding, says its aim is to make people sound “more local and global” on their website. In an interview with the BBC, Keshava Narayana said his 90% of the company’s employees and all four of its founders are immigrants, criticizing the company for trying to make the world “white and American”. Denied.
However, Mia Shah-Dand, founder of Women in AI Ethics and Lighthouse3, told Insider that being an immigrant from India with a non-American accent, Sanas’ announcement was “very exciting”, especially ” As someone who was teased,” he said. being discriminated against because of [their] accent. “
She tells us that technology is trying to erase what makes people unique and that who they are is “not good enough.”
“It feels like everything in Silicon Valley as long as it’s legalized by Stanford or Massachusetts Institute of Technology,” she said. “People will accept racism and sexism as long as the people doing it belong to one of these prestigious universities.”
Shah-Dand added that Thanas’ product enhances power dynamics “reminiscent of the colonial era”. is leaning toward the “whitening” form. It’s a power dynamic seen in many colonized countries historically, where people were pressured to whiten their skin to meet European beauty standards.
“This is the Silicon Valley version of digital whitening,” says Shah-Dand. “Technology is expanding and helping the world instead of making it a better place, and monetizing all of the hate and racism instead of actually trying to fix anything.”
Stefflbauer told Insider that Sanus’ technology is “genuinely disappointing and disturbing,” especially in a growing culture of bringing “all of yourself to work.”
“Only certain people can bring themselves all. Anyone outside this mythical canon is not invited to bring themselves.” Only after adopting the voice of a professional will the door to success open.
“This is another example of what we are facing when it comes to trying to mirror the real world in the technology industry and the products and services that come out of it,” Stefflbauer said.
She added that she doesn’t know how the technology will actually address racial prejudice.
“It doesn’t even try to come close to it with its solution,” she said. I have some connection to keep doing so.”
Call center agent told Insider he faces racist hostility
The founders of Sanas said they came up with the idea for the startup after a college friend at Stanford University was struggling with a call center job due to his Middle American accent.
Call center agents interviewed by Insider say their jobs can be brutal.
“Unfortunately, there are many people in this world who feel they are better than them or who hear your accent and despise you.” From 5 Years also said.
Swan, from Trinidad and Tobago, said she received a lot of “hostile” and “negative comments” from callers requesting to speak to someone American. I’ve heard of people being called by racist names like , and told that they’re not human, they’re black.
To minimize the racist backlash they face, some call center agents told Insider they’re trying to mimic customers’ accents and even change their names. or your employer may direct you to change your name.
“Since I started introducing myself as Michael O’Connor, my customer survey ratings have gone up. It’s all green, green, green,” Egyptian call center agent Osama Badr told Insider.
Sanas co-founder Keshava Narayana says he had a similar experience while working in a call center. There he underwent six weeks of accent training and was told to change his name to “Ethan”.
“There have been incidents that have stuck with me for a long time and this was one of them,” he told Insider.
There are also concerns that manipulated voices could hint at a homogenized future for technology.
Shah-Dand said he wasn’t convinced by technology’s advocacy, saying that people were exposed to different accents and could understand them, but he said he felt that call center employees were being abused unfairly. It is only because they are treated “inferiorly” that they are treated as such.
“There are a lot of people with very strong accents, like Boutros Boutros Ghali,” Shah Dand said, referring to the former UN secretary-general. So I try to understand.”
In his work, Stefflbauer says he’s always thinking about what digital life will look like 10 or 20 years from now, and he’s concerned about what technology like Thanas predicts. .
“We are seeing more and more examples of a digital life where no one is black, no brown, no accent, no one has a history outside the mythical ideals of North America,” Steflbauer said. Told. “And the question is do you want to export this mentality and bring this misery to everyone, because that’s definitely what this is.” His other AI tech, including facial recognition technology , faces accusations of racism and homogenization.
“Who wouldn’t mind taking a selfie on Instagram and having their face automatically changed to look like a different race?” she said. “That’s essentially what this is.”
But call center workers who have to deal with racist comments in their day-to-day work say they’d be happy to have a solution like the one offered by Sanus.
“It would definitely make my job easier. Everyone wants to be understood,” Swann said. “If there’s a job that needs to be done and if there’s something we can implement to make that job easier, that’s great.”