‘The future is spoken’ – AI voice technology and women in tech

February 28, 2024

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In the following article, Shyamala Prayaga explores the realm of AI voice technology and her engagement for women in tech.

1. You are the founder of Digital Assistant Academy. What made you start this company?

I started my journey in UX and transitioned to Conversational AI. Sometime in 2015, when I was part of launching Alexa, very few people in the industry were doing Conversational AI and designing voice interactions, most of the people had IVR backgrounds. So, my user experience background helped me get into the Conversational AI space and contribute to the launch of first-gen Alexa.

When I joined Ford in 2017, I was the only Conversational AI designer plus product manager working on designing virtual assistance in cars. As I started looking at hiring conversational designers, I found a gap. I found that a lot of people, who are doing Conversational AI, do not understand the space holistically, hence there are gaps in the experiences.

When I saw the gap, I started looking into if there were any courses available and if so, what kinds. I found a couple, but they were more focused on copywriting. Again, I felt that it was a very limited scope and does not do justice to designing world-class experiences.

That’s when I decided that instead of looking at folks from different backgrounds, if I myself – bring all the experience of product management, Conversational AI, UX, and research – if I design a course that brings all of these elements, we will be able to produce more successful Conversational AI designers. That is when I decided to start the Academy and we’ve been successfully able to train and solidify a lot of folks who are successfully working in the Conversational AI industry.

2. You want to build a community for women and diverse people in voice technology. What does it mean – to you – to be a women’s advocate?

I come from a very small town called Jabalpur. The tendency especially back in those days was that women are just going to be homemakers. Back then, there was no role model for me, so I did not know what to do and where to start.

During my career I figured that there are many more people like me who do not have a clear direction or do not have clear guidance, they do not have mentors that can guide them and can support them. And that is where the thought of building a community and working with women to empower them made sense to me.

 

Woman in tech

 

That is why I joined Women in Voice. I’m also a chair for Society for Women Engineers because there is a big gap even when it comes to diversity. I still sometimes feel like in meetings – where there are ten men – I am the only woman trying to push harder and push the boundary. That’s the kind of gender gap we still see, and it feels like more and more women need to be empowered, to be not just in the industry but also in the leadership positions making an impact.

I joined these different societies related to female empowerment to support them, mentor them, teach them, and guide them in whatever way possible, collaborating and coordinating, and providing my expertise, guidance, and support.

3. What made you move to the USA eight years ago? And was it a hard decision?

It was a really hard decision. It has been a dream of mine ever since I was a kid; I wanted to be in the US, and I wanted to make a mark for myself. I used to see women just confined to their homes and I knew that was not the life I wanted. I worked in the tech industry for a very long time. When I worked with Amazon India, my son was 3 years old, and my husband and I decided to move to give our son international exposure. So, I requested Amazon for an internal transfer and that is where the transition happened.

4. Your background is in civil engineering, which is different from UX design. What made you decide to invest so many years of your career in UX design?

Why I decided to invest so many years in UX and move away from civil engineering was at some point – when I was in civil engineering – I felt like things were getting monotonous, I wasn’t getting excited because I was doing the same thing, designing houses. There was no innovation or challenge. Since there were many similarities between architecture and UX, I decided to move into UX and leverage my engineering background to design meaningful experiences.

When I moved into UX, every day was new learning. When I started, I was designing websites, and slowly SaaS applications became a trend. Then, mobile became a thing, so I started learning and designing for different platforms. I felt like every time I was designing something, I was solving people’s problems, I was helping them – in fact, with a system that otherwise would not have existed. I give a lot of respect to UX designers because they simplify the most complex interactions in the easiest way, and they design for it. And that is basically what happened in my case hence I decided to stay for so many years in this UX field.

5. One of your main fields of expertise is voice assistance. Could you tell us a bit more of how the industry is doing right now?

In 2014 when I moved to the US, I started working on Alexa – It wasn’t really new. Siri and Google Now existed but they were still learning. The paradigm shift happened when Amazon launched Alexa in a completely different modality. It was a smart voice assistant, which was hands- free, and eyes-free and that changed the entire dynamic of the market.

 

Frequencies

 

Technologies are getting sophisticated day by day. Conversational AI technologies, like speech recognition, text-to- speech, and natural language processing technology are also evolving.

Speech recognition technology is now able to under- stand speech from different users and distinguish who is speaking, how they speak, and the different accents and dialects. Text-to-speech is also becoming more sophisticated, and the voice sounds more human-like. So, it’s really hard to differentiate between a robotic versus a human voice. If you look from the user perspective, there are a lot of things that are evolving around various use cases like customer care. The customer care bot assistants are smart enough to understand what the user is saying and talk to them in various modalities like touch, text, voice, and more in such a manner that the user will not be able to differentiate whether they are talking to a real person or a bot.

Now, the new trend we are seeing is the meta-human. An AI avatar may look like me, speak like me, and even have similar body language. That takes conversational AI to the next level.

6. What does it take for women to be more involved in the tech world? What do you see being the main issue?

The first thing is: it’s very challenging for a woman to be involved in the tech world.

When I was doing research for the voice assistant in the car, there were people who said that if the voice assistant is doing tasks like booking reservations, calling someone, or shopping on my behalf, I would be more comfortable having a female voice assistant. Versus, if I wanted the voice assistant to help me change the tires or help me in a vehicle with technical issues, I would be more comfortable getting instructions from a male voice assistant. So that is the kind of notion we have in the industry and everywhere in the world, where certain kinds of roles are taken by certain kinds of people.

The second thing, there’s so much gender gap. I’ve been in meetings where I was the only female and the rest – the entire attendees – were males. So, trying to make a mark in the male-dominated society, trying to push, and trying to make a point also is sometimes more challenging because they do not understand my point of view.

 

Women in tech - two woman working

 

A quick example, I was recently talking to my neighbor’s kid, who is in kindergarten and likes cars. When he was talking about the Ford Mustang, I told him I was the designer working on Ford Mustang and he was really shocked. He was like, “How come you work? Women are just homemakers, why are you working, I don’t believe it”. It really shocked me, and I was like even a kid of kindergarten age has that mindset, which is the main issue.

So, until both genders are treated equally, this is not going to change, women will always face these challenges every day. There are a lot of fields where women are in leadership positions and are making a mark. We just have to keep pushing harder and proving ourselves every day.

7. You have also started the podcast The Future is Spoken. What is the goal of the podcast and what are the main topics discussed?

I’m very much involved in Conversational AI in general. There is a lot to learn in the speech industry and tons of literature and research already exists. We will start seeing more and more voice-enabled devices everywhere. So, I wanted to bring all these speech AI industry experts to one place and learn from real-world experiences. They add so much value and bring so much knowledge, but there is not one place where all of this is being captured. So that’s when the idea for “The Future is Spoken” podcast came to me like the future is spoken and how do we prepare for it?

Woman working in tech

 

We talk about issues related to voice, like ethics, empathy, inclusivity, and accessibility, hence listeners gain some value from all the conversations. Speech is a billion-dollar industry and knowing all the ins and outs would only help people learn, because that’s how I learned. I learned through audio; I learned through visuals, and I felt like having a podcast will help a lot of different people to learn from industry experts.

8. This book is all about impact. What is impact to you?

I would say impact is all about what mark you have left. For example, a long time back I used to write a lot of blogs. One of the reasons was that that’s how I learned. As I mentioned, I used to learn through visuals and audio. So, if I used to listen to something, I used to write a blog about it so that I will remember it.

So, I wrote a blog, I wrote about user experience back then, and one person came to me and said “You are my mentor, you are my guide. Reading through your blogs I was able to crack my interview and get my first UX gig.” And that message was so amazing, so heart touching, he then continued saying “You have made an impact in my life, and I will remember you forever. You know, although I have never met you, you have made an impact.” That’s what impact is for me: if someone is gaining something out of my experience, that is the impact; if someone is able to recall my name “Oh, Shyamala Prayaga, she works in Voice Technology,” that is an impact.

So, for me, impact is what mark you have left of yourself and how people remember you.

About the author

Shyamala Prayaga is a seasoned conversational AI expert and author. Having led initiatives across connected home, automotive, and wearables, she’s put her work on research into usability, accessibility, speech recognition, and multimodal voice user interfaces, and has been published in publications such as Forbes. She’s spent the last 20 years designing mobile, web, desktop, and smart TV interfaces and has most recently joined NVIDIA. She’s also the founder of the Digital Assistant Academy.

Shyamala Prayaga

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