BBC Partners with Microsoft to Release Beeb Voice Assistant

The BBC partnered with Microsoft to release an early version of Beeb, its digital voice assistant. Its U.K. debut will be part of Microsoft’s Windows Insider Program to encourage users to help improve Beeb prior to a wider rollout. The BBC first announced Beeb last year, noting that the aim was to integrate voice services into all its products. The public broadcaster will collect data by requiring users to log in to Beeb with their BBC accounts but such data will not be used for targeted ads.

VentureBeat reports that, “the BBC is leveraging Microsoft’s Azure AI infrastructure including its speech recognition services for the new Beeb app, building on myriad previous projects the two companies have worked on together, including an experimental voice-controlled iPlayer back in 2017.”

U.K. users must sign up to be a Windows Insider before downloading the Beeb Beta for Windows 10 PCs and tablets. Currently, users will be “able to play specific radio stations, podcasts, or programs from the BBC … to request a snapshot of the local weather and latest news headlines” as well as other commands, such as “”OK Beeb, tell me a joke,” the latter written by BBC comedy writers.

“We’re still in the early stages of what services will be available on Beeb, but there’s no plans with third-party content at the moment,” said a BBC spokesperson. It won’t control smart home functions, “but Beeb isn’t really vying for the same market as Google Assistant or Alexa — it’s more about giving the BBC control of its own data and enabling it to experiment with new features and functionality without having a third party in charge of the go-ahead.”

The BBC said it will “retain text transcripts of things that people say” to improve Beeb in the future, some of which will be shared with Microsoft. But, said a spokesperson, “we remove any data that can easily identify you when we store this text transcript.”

One reason for the text transcripts is BBC’s desire to be able to handle the U.K.’s “myriad [regional] accents.” “It’s important to us that Beeb works for everyone in the U.K., so we’ve been working hard to make sure that it can recognize these regional accents and accurately understand what’s being said, regardless of where in the U.K. you’re from,” said a spokesperson, who emphasized that the BBC would not record anyone without their “voluntary opt-in.”

Beeb will be one of the first digital assistants to have a default male voice, “though others on the market do have the option to switch to a male voice.” A spokesperson said that, “our ambition in the future is for you to be able to choose from a range of voices you’d like Beeb to have.”