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Voice analysis technology
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Ross: Is new use for voice analysis discrimination in disguise?

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Does your voice contain clues to your character? Not your words, but your actual vocal vibrations?

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There was an article on The Verge headlined, “Why companies want to mine the secrets in your voice.” It hinted that by analyzing, for example, the voices of people who apply for bank loans, and then by keeping track of who pays on time and who doesn’t, artificial intelligence could predict which borrowers are more trustworthy, based simply on their voices.

So, I asked Dr. Emily Bender about this. She works with this kind of technology at the University of Washington, and she has her doubts. She suspects this is not simply not an objective decoding of vocal vibrations.

“So I don’t think there’s anything directly in someone’s voice that can do that,” said Dr. Bender. “I think what’s going on is it’s picking up on things like someone’s age [which] is going to be apparent from the vocal quality, and someone’s social background.”

She’s seen this in her own work as well.

“We know from socio-linguistics that people who belong to different groups are going to speak differently, and so it could well be picking up on that, and then reproducing patterns that we really don’t want reproduced.”

So, my question is whether this really just amplifies prejudice.

“Exactly,” answered Bender.

Now, I’m not a computer, but I definitely picked up something in Dr. Bender’s voice — she thinks this kind of application is simply discrimination disguised as science.

This has been tried before, and it never goes well.

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