SoapBox Labs CTO: The importance of building equitable voice AI systems

23 Jun 2023

Dr Amelia Kelly. Image: SoapBox Labs

SoapBox Labs’ Amelia Kelly discusses her role as CTO and the company’s approach to AI regulation and data privacy.

Dr Amelia Kelly is the CTO at SoapBox Labs, a company that develops accurate and secure voice technology for children.

With an extensive academic and professional record, including a master’s and PhD degrees in speech technology from Trinity College Dublin, Kelly now leads SoapBox Labs’ team of speech engineers and linguists in building speech recognition technology.

Kelly was named AI Person of the Year at the AI Ireland Awards 2023 and received the AI Project Leader of the Year award at the Business Post’s CIO/IT Awards. She is also a board member of the IAB Masters in AI at the University of Limerick and has previously advised the Government on AI strategy as a part of the AI Top Team programme.

‘AI-powered learning tools are high stakes’

What are some of the biggest challenges you’re facing in the current IT landscape and how are you addressing them?

Educating clients and the market in general about bias and the importance of building equitable voice AI systems that understand every child’s voice equally. Many of SoapBox’s clients are educational companies who integrate our technology into their literacy, language learning and dyslexia screening products for example. AI-powered learning tools are high stakes and we need to prove that our voice AI mitigates bias of all kinds, whether racial, socioeconomic or based on age, dialect or accent.

What are your thoughts on digital transformation in a broad sense within your industry?

Many of our clients – companies like McGraw Hill and Scholastic – are behemoths in the education industry and have been leaders for decades. These companies have also been working through the digital transformation of their processes and product offerings for decades. It’s exciting and gratifying to see such companies embrace voice AI by signing multiyear, multiproduct deals with us and committing to the widespread adoption of voice-enabled products across their portfolios of products.

What big tech trends do you believe are changing the world and your industry specifically?

There are some obvious ones – ChatGPT and the hype around language modeling and large language models in particular.

SoapBox specialises in voice AI for kids so in some ways we’ve been ahead of the curve for years already, with an approach to language modeling that focuses on small, targeted models that deliver more accurate results and better performance for specific use cases for kids in learning and gaming.

It’s exciting to see our clients integrate voice AI into their products and begin to explore the value of the rich and granular data points generated by our voice engine. That data, in the immediate and over time, will augment how teachers teach, how children learn and will democratise personalised learning for all children regardless of their socioeconomic background or skill acquisition level. That’s exciting.

What are your thoughts on how we can address the security challenges currently facing your industry?

Regulation has a big role to play, but while regulation like the EU AI Act catches up with the speed of new innovation, companies like ours need to adopt an approach to data privacy and bias that’s beyond regulation and that is transparent, human-centric and that respects all individuals’ fundamental right to equity and privacy. This is even more important when it comes to children’s voice data for example. SoapBox is compliant with regulations like GDPR and child-specific regulations like COPPA but we actually take a much more proactive approach. For SoapBox, privacy and equity are an ethos and a mission that the company has adopted since our founding in 2013 and we’re very proud of that.

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