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I Say, the BBC Is Developing Its Own Digital Assistant, Beeb

Pete Pachal

Pete Pachal

Editorial Director

3 min. read

If you hate the idea of talking to Alexa for some tasks, and Google Assistant and Siri for others, you’re not going to like what the BBC is doing.

The UK’s chief broadcaster is developing its own digital assistant, aptly named Beeb, according to The Guardian. In the field of voice assistants, Beeb’s ambitions are comparatively humble: the BBC is apparently not at all interested in building its own smart speakers. Instead, when Beeb officially launches in 2020, it’ll be integrated into the BBC website and the broadcaster’s iPlayer app on certain smart TVs. It’ll also allow other manufacturers to build Beeb into their products.

BBC programming is already available on voice platforms like Amazon’s Alexa, but the broadcaster says Beeb will provide a better experience for UK users because the relatively small team developing it will cater to the wide variety of British accents. However, that’s probably not the main motivation for the move, since it comes at the same time the BBC is ending its partnership with TuneIn (the streaming service that many Amazon Echo owners use to access BBC programming) over how much listener data it can access.

The wake word of Beeb will apparently be “Beeb,” which could pose some practical problems. For starters, as the unofficial nickname of the BBC in the UK, it’s probably said in casual conversation more often than, say, “Siri.” It also lacks any hard consonants and is only one syllable, both of which may make it harder for far-field microphones to clearly discern when the word is spoken. (If you’ve ever wondered why Alexa, Cortana, Bixby, and other digital assistant names are phonetically similar, that’s the reason.)

It’s unclear exactly how Beeb will work on third-party equipment. It’s hard to picture a manufacturer choosing to build a smart speaker that uses Beeb exclusively, which would mean it would have to share a home with Alexa, Google, or both (à la the Sonos One). That leads to the question of whether or not users would need to talk to Beeb specifically or if it would simply manage interactions when BBC skills are invoked. The technology of voice interaction is rarely as straightforward as it appears; while most users only ever speak to the “main” assistant that’s integrated with the device, behind-the-scenes apps and services often have their own AI that helps map specific commands to certain actions.

Sometimes, in the case of digital assistants backed by large companies and marketed as key features, that interaction is clearer to the user. The most stark example of this is how Microsoft’s Cortana works with Amazon Alexa: If a user has an Echo and a Windows PC, they can invoke one assistant from the other — i.e. “Cortana, ask Alexa to….” That could be what the BBC has in mind, but without an explicit partnership between the BCC and, say, Amazon, users probably wouldn’t be able to simply ask, “Alexa, ask Beeb to play the news.”

Even if they could, it’s still an issue. From a pragmatic standpoint, nobody wants to have to remember which assistant you need to speak with to get certain things done. The vision of a truly intelligent assistant is more along the lines of the movie “Her” — where there’s a single voice you speak with, and everything is magically sorted out by the AI. While Beeb sounds like it might have advantages to folks in the UK who find that Alexa and Google have trouble understanding them, the BBC’s move hints that we’re probably further out from that vision than we were yesterday.

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