How did Google’s digital assistant pick up Singlish?

How did Google’s digital assistant pick up Singlish?

Google Assistant Singlish
Singlish edition of Google Assistant in action. (Photo: Google)

SINGAPORE: In a fit of pique, with no compromise in sight, a heated debate over fruit came to an unlikely denouement: "OK Google, what’s your favourite fruit?” 

Unflustered, the digital assistant answers, a little playfully: “I’m crazy about durians. The smell doesn’t get to me.”


That scenario may or may not have taken place, but it showed the amount of thought put into a conversation about a local favourite, the durian, for the Singaporean Assistant to understand the local context and nuances, explained Mr Deniz Binay, product manager of Google Assistant.  

“With the Assistant, we want you to be able to have a really natural conversation with Google to get things done in your world. And to be a truly helpful ‘kaki’ (friend), your Assistant needs to understand your world, and that includes your language, local culture and customs,” Mr Binay told Channel NewsAsia in an email.

“That’s why the Assistant is built to recognise local accents, as well as offer unique responses to questions that relate to local culture and customs – from local food, landmarks and even some Singlish terms.”

The customised-for-Singapore Google Assistant was launched on Nov 2 by the search giant, and it announced on Dec 15 that the digital assistant will be rolled out to phones running Android 5.0, also known as Lollipop.

Deniz Binay, Google's product manager for Google Assistant
Mr Deniz Binay, the product manager for Google Assistant. (Photo: Google)

In the email interview, Mr Binay shed more light on how the Google Assistant picked up Singlish, and the development effort behind it.

Q: How did you teach the Singaporean Assistant its local nuances?

A: In general, the responses you get from Google Assistant are a combination of algorithmically generated answers, like in Google Search, and responses written by a team of professional writers. With machine learning techniques, like natural language processing and voice recognition, the Google Assistant can learn to understand a new language.

But bringing the Google Assistant to a new language is much more than translation and language understanding.

It also means making sure that it knows the things, people and places that matter to people and that it understands local culture. That’s where our team of professional writers come in: They work very closely with our teams in Singapore and teach the Assistant things like names of local places, businesses and festivals, so you can say: “Ok Google, how do I get to Little India?”, “Where is the nearest NTUC?” or “When is Hari Raya Puasa next year?”

Q: So there’s a team of professional writers scripting Google Assistant’s responses? How does this work?

A: We wanted to make sure that you can have a really natural conversation with the Google Assistant, that’s why we built in a personality.

The team that works on the Google Assistant’s personality has a wide range of people with varying background, including folks with experience working at Pixar, the Onion, Nintendo, etc. We’ve researched the personality and artificial intelligence space and thought through how Google's personality should manifest in a digital assistant – and we think the Google Assistant reflects the values and spirit of Google itself: Helpful, humble, and a little playful.

An example here might be the question: “What’s your favourite fruit?”

In this case, it isn’t Google Assistant pretending it’s a person or that it eats fruits. But we also aren’t ignoring the request from the user to have some fun. So you’ll get something like: “I’m crazy about durians. The smell doesn’t get to me” – answering the question, but not in a way that doesn’t fit the personality.

durian party 2
(Photo: Xabryna Kek)

Q: How many Singaporeans were roped in to help develop the Singaporean Assistant?

A: We got help from dozens of Singaporean Googlers, as well as external volunteers from our local guides program, who helped us test the Singaporean Assistant over a period of several months.

Q. How accurate is Singaporean Assistant in voice recognition now?

A: We don’t have any numbers to share for Singapore but as vice president of product management Rishi Chandra said during the Made By Google event in October, we’ve been investing in speech recognition and natural language understanding for more than a decade and are pretty confident that we have one of the best voice recognition in the world.

In the last year, we’ve answered more than 100 million questions on the Google Assistant. To understand voices from users of different age groups, genders and accents, we’ve trained the Google Assistant at a scale that only Google could, with more than 50 million voice samples in hundreds of different ambient environments.

Source: CNA/kk