Impact of Voice Tech on Learning for Children with Disabilities
“Hey doodle, baby shark! Alesssa, baaaaaby shaaaark”, these garbled words are increasingly becoming common first words that a toddler learns to speak. Alexa, Siri, Google and others have become a constant presence in kids’ lives, right from reminding them to brush their teeth in the morning, to playing their favorite music, to making them giggle by telling them jokes, all the way to helping them fall asleep by singing lullabies. While there are many ways in which these voice assistants are used by children for entertainment and education, they can be transformative to the lives of the children with special needs. We reached out to the top voice technology industry expert, Ashlesha Kadam, for her opinions about how voice tech can positively impact children with special needs. [Note: all opinions are of the individual and are not representative of their employer].
Ashlesha Kadam currently leads the global technical product team for all Amazon Music experiences on voice assistants like Alexa, Google Assistant and Siri. She is a renowned name in the field of Artificial Intelligence (AI), particularly, Natural Language Understanding (NLU), and has led several innovative global launches for Amazon Music on voice assistants like Alexa, Google Assistant and Siri. Ashlesha has led technical product and engineering teams to craft music experiences on voice technology, and has a deep understanding of how different customer segments interact with voice assistants for their needs – toddlers vs. elderly, someone who has native Spanish proficiency vs. minimal, someone in Germany who wants to listen to children’s radio like Bibi und Tina vs. someone in India who likes to listen to music by movie stars like SRK instead of actual music artists, and so on. Ashlesha also has a keen interest in the evolving field of Human Computer Interactions, and serves as the co-chair for this field at the prestigious Grace Hopper Celebration, the biggest conference for women in tech with over thirty thousand participants from hundreds of countries.
“Voice is one of the most natural and intuitive ways for humans to interact”, says Ashlesha, “but there are children with special needs due to speech or language impairment for whom using their voice isn’t easy. However, voice technology can greatly support these kids. Voice assistants can be customized to specific needs of every child so that they can be provided a safe, non-judgmental and encouraging space to practice their communication”. Ashlesha shared how children with speech impairments often work with speech therapists, who prescribe specific exercises at home. Voice assistants can create a fun, private and consistent environment for these kids to complete their exercises at home. With the advancements in understanding of natural language, voice technology is now able to understand what a user is saying despite their speech imperfections, allowing kids to feel more confident about interacting. Voice assistants can also make it fun and engaging for kids to learn without feeling like they are learning. For example, if a kid asks a voice assistant to play music, the assistant might ask “Can you first tell me what 4 + 5 is?”, and proceed to play music if the child gets the right answer. Voice technology can also detect sentiments and emotional cues, providing specific nudges to educators and therapists.
“Voice assistants can also become critical modes of communication for those with visual impairments or mobility challenges”, said Ashlesha, “For example, if a child is unfortunately bound to a wheelchair, or can’t see, they can still always talk to a voice assistant for many of their needs, like calling on their parents’ phone, knowing what time it is, reading books and poems, asking questions about anything in history or current affairs, and so on. With all the content accessible via voice assistants, they might fast become the default “teacher” at home. In fact, voice technology is empowering those with special needs to not hold themselves back from any opportunities. For example, there are tools like Talon Voice that enable those with special needs to code without having to use the keyboard, all by using just their voice.” Another interesting example that Ashlesha shared is how kids with ADHD can particularly benefit from highly engaging and immersive experiences that voice assistants provide by holding their attention via immersive and gamified experiences.
However, there are two sides to every coin. Along with noting the positives, Ashlesha also cautioned, “There are challenges like privacy and data security, especially about private and sensitive information about those with special needs. It is important to ensure that any voice technology-based application takes these concerns into account”, she said. “Further, while voice technology is getting better and better, there are still times when the voice assistant seems to understand English better than say, a relatively less popularly used language like French or Bengali. Or there could be certain accents that a voice assistant understands better than others, which could be a jarring experience for kids from lingually diverse backgrounds”, Ashlesha shared. Another challenge that Ashlesha spoke about is the lack of a structured curriculum for various segments of children based on what they need and what works the best for them.
Ashlesha also spoke excitedly about her leading role at the forefront of the new Large Language Model (LLM) advancements in AI and their application to voice technology, “LLM based applications like ChatGPT’s voice interface can provide a more fluid, natural voice interface that is almost like talking to a human. As LLMs advance, and their application to voice technology improves, it will be easier for those with special needs to communicate more smoothly and easily with voice assistants”, she mentioned. She also shared that with LLMs, it might be possible to create structured curriculum that can be adapted to each individual. Ashlesha looks forward to the next chapter she is leading in the voice technology space leveraging LLMs to make voice technology more intuitive, inclusive and safe, to achieve her dream of “voice technology becoming a true co-pilot and companion for every individual”, as she shared.
To connect with Ashlesha and learn more about her work, reach out to her on
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