Irish startup SoapBox Labs is building speech recognition tech for kids


Irish startup SoapBox Labs is on a mission to create what it calls “the world’s most accurate and accessible speech technology for children”, tech it plans to offer to third-party hardware and app developers. These span educational apps that support reading and language development, children’s voice-control for IoT devices in the home, smart toys, and AR/VR experiences.

Founded in 2013 by Dr. Patricia Scanlon, an ex-Bell Labs researcher and PhD with nearly 20 years experience in the area of speech recognition technologies, the young company is based on the premise that speech recognition tech built for adults, such as that most recently found in devices like the Amazon Echo or Google Home, doesn’t work as well as it could do for kids.

That’s because children have higher pitched voices and different speech patterns. Crucially, unlike adults, younger children don’t tend to adapt their speech to suit machines, either, something we do consciously or unconsciously in order to improve the utility of voice-enabled user interfaces and so-called smart assistants.

In a call, Scanlon explained that when she and the SoapBox Labs team began working on this problem in 2013, they had to disregard a lot of what they already understood about how to build speech technology. After an extensive research phase, it became clear that “children’s speech behaviours are vastly different to adults,” particularly the younger the child. Speech recognition tech developed using adult voice data that models adult behaviours leads to poor performance when used by young kids.

Instead, SoapBox Labs has created its own unique children’s speech dataset (consisting of thousands of hours of children’s speech data), and combined this with the team’s understanding of children’s voice and behaviors. The resulting platform is said to leverage deep learning (AI) techniques to power the startup’s proprietary models and scoring algorithms, and ultimately provide far better speech technology targeted at children.