Police Concerned Whether AI System Could Understand ‘Brummie’ Accent

West Midlands Police trialled an artificial intelligence (AI)-powered system for receiving non-emergency calls from the public, but were concerned, among other things, that the system might not be able to understand local accents.

A document containing technical details of the trial was mistakenly published online by the office of the West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) and was viewed by the BBC, before being removed.

The test system, called “Amy101”, was based on Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant and was intended to help manage rising call volumes.

Police also believed the system might also be able to offer additional features, such as responses in multiple languages.

Image credit: Amazon

Local accent

The nationally funded proof-of-concept trial began on 19 December 2023 and ran for two months before being concluded.

The system was able to prioritise vulnerable callers by listening for keywords and could direct calls to the appropriate channels based on callers’ requirements.

The document was prepared for an ethical oversight committee that advises the PCC and Chief Constable, and detailed potential problems that might arise with the system, including whether it would be able to understand the local accent.

“Bias will naturally occur within the ‘Amy’ system based on accents/localisation – for example can she understand ‘Brummie’ accents? And are they treated with equal weighting to different accents in English?” the document reportedly stated.

Police believed that the use of a large-scale system such as Alexa, which is in operation around the world with a range of accents and languages, would mean language or accent bias would not be an issue.

Data concerns

The document also questioned whether call data would be used by Amazon to train the system underlying Alexa, raising privacy concerns, but said police were able to opt out of providing training data and would do so “where viable”.

The document said the Home Office was “keeping a close eye” on the trial with a view to applying it more broadly.

West Midlands Police director of commercial services Peter Gillett said that now that the trial was over police would be “sharing the results and outcomes at a national scale”.

The use of AI has exploded over the past year with the popularity of ChatGPT and similar generative AI services, but their proliferation has raised concerns about job losses, data privacy and other trust and safety issues.

Matthew Broersma

Matt Broersma is a long standing tech freelance, who has worked for Ziff-Davis, ZDnet and other leading publications

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