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Silicon Valley Startup Sparks Controversy Over What Critics Call ‘Racist Software'

A Silicon Valley startup is sparking controversy for its, what critics call, “racist software.”

Palo Alto’s Sanas uses artificial intelligence to alter or remove accents that you may hear when calling into a tech helpline. 

“And to get the conversation away from how we speak, to what we say,” said CEO Marty Massih Sarim.

It has raised more than 30 million dollars in venture funding to, as it says, make the process of calling into a call center easier and smoother.

The blowback has been swift and brutal. Critics call the software racist, saying it eliminates rich accents and cultures for a more “white sounding” tone. An accusation the company’s CEO strongly denies.

“That we should all sound the same, that the world should be a world void of accents, that we should all speak English, and not only should we all speak English, we should all speak midwestern English,” said Don Heider, chief executive at the Markkula Ethics Center. “It doesn’t counteract the bias, it reaffirms it, basically that everyone should speak in a certain particular way, rather than teach us it doesn’t matter if somebody has an accent.”

Sarim, who worked in and built call centers himself, said that’s just not true.

“Certain articles say we’re trying to make people sound white,” he said. “Well, I’m not white, my founders aren’t white, 87% of our company is not white, we’re not building a white program. This software, this ability, can do this in many countries, and many cultures.”

The goal, Sarim said, is to help call center workers keep their jobs and help companies do more business faster.

“I don’t want to use this call to teach you about my culture, how I pronounce things, and how I react to things, I need this business to be done, this phone call needs to be as short as possible, somebody else is waiting in the queue, they look at it from a purely business perspective,” said Ahmed Banafa, cyber security professor at SJSU.

The Sanas CEO said, “We built this for the agent, for their mental health, for them to be able to be on an even playing field, for them to do their job, be allowed to do their job the right way, and to get the conversation away from how we speak, to what we say.”

Source: NBC Bay Area

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