Soapbox Labs brings AI to Microsoft cloud to boost childhood literacy worldwide

13 Mar 2019

From left: Patricia Scanlon, Soapbox Labs; Peggy Johnson, Microsoft; Cathriona Hallahan, Microsoft; and Senan Tay. Image: Soapbox Labs

Soapbox Labs’ AI-driven speech recognition tech combined with Microsoft’s global cloud infrastructure could address global education gap.

Dr Patricia Scanlon’s Soapbox Labs has signed a major deal with software giant Microsoft that could have an enormous effect on addressing childhood literacy all over the world.

Through the new partnership, Soapbox Labs will bring its AI-driven child-specific speech recognition technology to Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform to deliver a scalable and cost-effective solution for child literacy, available across global markets.

‘The societal impact of a technology like ours, that helps children to advance their reading skills, is potentially huge’

Soapbox Labs was founded in 2013 by Scanlon, who was recognised by Forbes in December 2018 as one of the world’s top women in tech. Scanlon is an ex-Bell Labs researcher who has a PhD and nearly 20 years’ experience in the area of speech recognition technologies.

“Children’s voices differ greatly from adults’, both physically and behaviourally,” Scanlon explained. “Off-the-shelf speech recognition designed for adult voices and behaviours do not work accurately for children. Our proprietary speech recognition technology is designed for children aged four to 12, modelling their voices and behaviours and thereby ensuring high accuracy. Developers can voice-enable entertainment and educational experiences for children by integrating our technology into their products.

“The societal impact of a technology like ours, that helps children to advance their reading skills, is potentially huge,” said Scanlon. “We are partnering with Microsoft because we value its commitment to data privacy and security, and we share common core values when it comes to education and accessibility for children.”

Speech recognition at scale

The partnership is initially being rolled out on a pilot basis in Ireland and the UK. The pilot project will set out to demonstrate how Soapbox Labs’ state-of-the-art speech recognition technology can be used at scale with Microsoft Azure, to support accessibility, literacy and language learning for young children.

“Microsoft is partnering with Soapbox Labs because we believe that technology can solve significant societal challenges, like child literacy,” explained Cathriona Hallahan, managing director at Microsoft Ireland. “This partnership is an example of how AI for Good and cloud computing can be harnessed to deliver real social impact. We look forward to progressing the pilot in Ireland and to see the impact that the partnership will have on the children.”

Reading is a foundational skill as it forms the basis of most other learning activities in the classroom. Yet, according to UNESCO, 175m children globally lack even basic literacy skills. Soapbox Labs’ speech recognition technology powers automated reading and language learning tutors that can rapidly advance a child’s literacy skills by allowing the device to ‘listen’ as a child reads aloud, assessing pronunciation and responding appropriately, just as a helpful adult would do.

“Imagine the positive impact of children having access to an automated reading tutor that allows them to regularly practise and rapidly advance their reading skills,” said Julie Sinnamon, CEO of Enterprise Ireland. “Engaging a child early and helping them to read can have a very positive impact on their quality of life, as well as a benefit to society. We’re very proud to support an Irish technology innovation with such far-reaching and positive possibilities as Soapbox Labs.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years