There is no shortage of fast-rising startups, and many of them are tackling problems using AI technology. But Sanas is pursuing a particularly shocking goal: making call center workers sound white. Specifically, making them sound white and American.
According to the company’s website, they want to make people sound local, globally. There is even a demonstration, which starts with someone with an Indian accent reading a sentence. Following that sentence is the Sanas version, which transforms the voice into something unmistakably white.
The technology has impressed investors since its start in 2021, with the company receiving a total of almost $38 million since August 21st of last year. In fact, $32 million of its overall funding came in June, which is a significant amount for a speech technology service.
But the funding is just the start for Sanas, which has its eye on the future. The company hopes to use its accent-changing technology for consumer video and audio calls, potentially even using it in film and TV.
The company even mentioned adding more voices to the mix to localize even further, including a Southern and Midwestern accent to replace the generic offering. But to what end?
The understanding seems to be that callers are more likely to be polite and amiable if they are speaking to someone “like them” on the phone. It can even be seen as a continuation of using American names in call centers located outside the country. Another justification is that it makes the employees easier to understand.
According to Sanas President Marty Sarim, having an accent is not a problem. It is only a problem because they are causing bias and misunderstandings. Moreover, the company calls it empowering for call center employees, helping improve understanding and customer satisfaction.
But there are more than a few people who disagree, pointing out that accents do not cause bias, only triggering pre-existing biases.
More than anything, modern customer service might be to blame. It places two people on opposite ends of the call, with the caller wanting a problem solved and the employee having little power to actually help. Moreover, the heavy scripting and surveillance force things to be that much worse.
Sanas stands by its product, though, even having plans to open a headquarters in India. Moreover, it believes that a technological breakthrough is approaching that will allow people to be understood around the world, which appeals to a large number of companies reliant on call centers.
Furthermore, Sarim doesn’t believe anything bad will come of it. If anything, he holds the opposite expectation, believing that the technology will help create millions of jobs in countries around the world.
However, does creating jobs actually mean reducing bias, or is that just further proof that the main drive for the company and investors is pure capitalism? In its current form, the technology seems to do little more than mask the person on the other end of the call.
When speaking to The Guardian, Chris Gilliard, a privacy researcher, said, “It seems like an attempt to boil everybody down to some homogenized, mechanical voice that ignores all the beauty that comes from people’s languages and dialects and cultures. It’s a really sad thing.”
Before that, he said a long-range effect is the erasure of people as individuals, which seems even more hauntingly true when you consider Sanas’s vision of bringing in more accents and spreading the technology to consumer videos, calls, TV, and film.