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BBC Launches Artificial Intelligence Tool To Read Its Articles To Listeners

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The BBC is one of the world's most recognized broadcasters. Maybe you've heard this before.

(SOUNDBITE OF BBC BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED BROADCASTER #1: Hello. And welcome to Newshour from the BBC World Service, coming to you live from our studios in central London.

GREENE: But when the BBC wanted to step up its audio game online, it wanted a more informal, friendlier voice than that. So it turned to artificial intelligence. NPR tech correspondent Shannon Bond introduces us to their newest sound.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: I'm the BBC's synthetic voice, and I can read out articles from bbc.com.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: This is the first time I'm meeting this voice, which I'm sorry to say doesn't have a name. The BBC told me I could ask it anything, so I asked it to explain how it works.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: It's easy. I take the text that's on the screen and read it out loud. Well, OK, maybe it's not quite that simple. There's a lot of tech going on in the background.

BOND: The BBC developed the voice with engineers at Microsoft using machine learning.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: They based it on many hours of human recordings and finely tuned it to create the voice you hear now. Pretty clever, eh?

BOND: A lot of publishers are trying these experiments to turn text into speech to make their websites and apps accessible for people who have a hard time seeing and to keep people engaged even if they're too busy to sit down and read. So the BBC did a lot of research and decided to shed one of its best-known traits, the very proper accent known as the Queen's English.

(SOUNDBITE OF BBC BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED BROADCASTER #2: Here is the Air Ministry's weather forecast for tomorrow.

BOND: Online, the BBC wanted a voice that's more easygoing, one you could imagine having a pint with.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: I'm British, so I say tomahto (ph) while you say tomayto (ph). I'm also Northern, aka not from London, so I say Bath, while the Queen of England might say Bahth (ph).

BOND: Bath, Bahth. OK, that might not sound like a big deal to American ears, but on the other side of the pond, it really matters.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: In the U.K., Northerners are known for sounding friendly. I hope I do, too.

BOND: That tone also sets the BBC apart from the audio technology other news organizations are using.

CLAIRE: This is your Washington Post Election 2020 results update. I'm Claire, elections AI presenter for the Post.

BOND: Claire is all business, no drama. At the other end of the spectrum, there's The New York Times.

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR: Black theater is having a moment. Thank Tyler Perry - seriously.

BOND: The Times bought a company this year called Audm, which produces audio stories with professional voice actors. The BBC is aiming for somewhere in the middle. Here's what its voice sounds like reading a recent story.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: But when the office temporarily closed eight months ago due to the pandemic, Domino wasn't wistful about losing his daily dose of corporate culture, the view or free kombucha.

BOND: So now when you might think about flipping on the radio or a podcast, the BBC hopes you'll try out a news story or feature.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: Life can get busy, so I can help by reading articles out loud, letting you get on with other things at the same time. You might need to go for a run, pick the kids up from school or make supper, which I believe Americans call dinner.

BOND: But do people really want to listen to a robotic voice, even a friendly one? I asked Nick Quah, who writes the audio industry newsletter Hot Pod. He says that depends on whether the AI can fool you into thinking it's a real person.

NICK QUAH: Could you - (laughter) can it be an automated delivery of information that doesn't feel mechanical, that feels vaguely believable as (laughter) a source of like, you know, that intimacy that people look for in the audio format?

BOND: And when it comes to that question, we humans still have an edge over the robots. Just ask Siri.

SIRI: Shannon Bond, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.