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VOA Asia Weekly: Artificial Intelligence Masks Accents of Call Center Workers

VOA Asia Weekly: Artificial Intelligence Masks Accents of Call Center Workers
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US Vice President Harris attends ASEAN summit. US warns North Korea not to supply Russia with weapons. How AI might help ease discrimination against call center workers. Previewing Shanghai Disneyland's Zootopia attraction.

How artificial intelligence might help reduce discrimination against call center workers.

Welcome to VOA Asia Weekly. I'm Chris Casquejo in Washington. That story is just ahead, but first, making headlines:

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris met with Indonesian President Joko Widodo on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Jakarta on Wednesday. ASEAN has struggled to make progress on issues such as the military coup in Myanmar, but Harris said the organization “absolutely” remains a critical forum.

Around 2,100 U.S. and 1,900 Indonesian troops are taking part in joint military exercises in East Java, Indonesia. It is the biggest iteration of this annual exercise known as Super Garuda Shield and comes amid rising tensions between Southeast Asia and China.

U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan warned on Tuesday that North Korea would pay a price for supplying Russia with weapons to use in Ukraine. Sullivan said arms negotiations between Russia and North Korea are actively advancing.

Hong Kong’s top court has instructed the city’s government to legally recognize same-sex partnerships. The ruling did not grant full marriage rights to same-sex couples, and the government has two years to comply. This ruling represents a partial victory for the activists.

Pope Francis departed Mongolia on Monday after the first-ever papal visit to the country, with Mongolia’s Foreign Minister holding a farewell ceremony at Ulaanbaatar’s Chinggis Khaan Airport.

U.S. President Joe Biden is set to depart for India to attend the G20 summit beginning Saturday. On the agenda: the war in Ukraine, climate change, a push to reform multilateral institutions that provide financing to developing nations, and the likely decision to welcome the 55-member African Union into the body. Chinese leader Xi Jinping is not expected to attend.

The Philippines and India are the world’s top call center countries. A California tech startup is using artificial intelligence, or AI, to mask the accents of call center workers to reduce discrimination, but as VOA’s Matt Dibble explains, some say diversity is being erased.

In the global economy, a call to a customer service center will likely be answered by someone in a faraway part of the world. Call center workers can train for months to effectively communicate with customers whose native language and culture differ from theirs.

“Okay try that: ‘photographer’.



Despite this training, accents often get in the way, says developer Sharath Narayana.

“There are at least a few instances every single day of his life or her life that they go through some level of discrimination and sometimes straight up abuse.”

Narayana is a co-founder of California-based Sanas AI, whose technology can adjust the way a speaker sounds with the goal of making an accent more relatable. A call center worker from the Philippines demonstrated.

“Hi, my name is Iggy, I am from Parañaque.”

“Hi, my name is Iggy, I am from Parañaque.”

The difference can be subtle, but Narayana says it is helping call center workers avoid abuse.

“We're not trying to hide the fact that this person is from India, or this person is from the Philippines. But this person would sound so clear, so confident, and so crisp that the other person would like to have a conversation.”

Discrimination and abuse by callers are among the factors leading to high turnover among call center workers.

Sociologist Aneesh Aneesh says tools like Sanas can help reduce the burden on call center agents.

Aneesh, however, worries that it also points to what he says are dehumanizing trends in technology, namely erasing diversity.

“Most of our communication is mediated through some technology. But when technologies start changing our accent itself, that is transforming you into your own avatar.

Now the driving force is not developing an understanding between human beings, but the driving force is transactional in the sense that things have to get functionally done.”

Narayana says that of the workers with the optional Sanas system installed, 97% of them are choosing to use it every day.

“I was able to listen to one of my calls using Sanas and wow, it looks like English is my first language, where in fact it’s not.”

For now, the AI seems to be helping people connect.

Matt Dibble, VOA News, Palo Alto, California.

Visit for the most up-to-date stories. I’m Chris Casquejo.

We leave you now at Shanghai Disneyland’s Zootopia attraction, which is scheduled to open at the theme park by the end of the year.

Thanks for watching VOA Asia Weekly.