The way we feel and our dispositions at any given moment are deeply embedded in our speech. While we may be fully aware of what we are saying, we often pay little attention to how we say it or even the way others perceive the statements we have made. Thanks to the innovative technology behind VoiceVibes, Debra Cancro and her team have cracked the code on what might be hidden in our voices. As the Founder and CEO of a company that uses AI for voice analysis and pattern identification, Debra has created a tool for effective communication that speaks louder than words.
Tamara: Can you share a story that inspired you to get involved in AI?
Debra: After the last startup I worked for got acquired, I decided to take a break from my high-tech career and work as a stay-at-home mom for a few years. This was by far the most difficult job I ever had! During those long days, I would be known to lose my patience and talk in a not-so-pleasant voice more often than I’m proud to admit. I lost sleep many nights fearing that I was doing more harm than good for my kids – that my negative, condescending tone was tearing down their confidence. I didn’t want to be like that, but it’s hard to change!! At the time, Fitbit was becoming popular and I wondered if I could track how I talked. It would be humbling if I had metrics showing me I was condescending 10 times that day, or negative-sounding 70% of the time!! I thought this would be very powerful and started to explore if AI could be used to analyze the way people sound. Not necessarily by what they say, but how they say it.
Tamara: Describe your company and the AI/predictive analytics/data analytics products/services you offer.
Debra: This interest evolved into some very unique, proprietary technology that we have developed over the last 6 years. Using AI and other advanced techniques, we have developed models that analyze patterns and features in voice to predict how an audience would perceive a speaker. We market the technology initially in a public speaking practice tool called myvoicevibes that enables people to practice their speaking skills and receive comprehensive, automated feedback through personal dashboards.
Tamara: How do you see the AI/data analytics/predictive analysis industry evolving in the future?
Debra: Through deep learning we can identify features that we can’t even understand!
Tamara: What is the biggest challenge facing the industry today in your opinion?
Debra: Data security concerns are a big challenge as data is so valuable. New regulations in the EU called GDPR will go into effect in May that dictate how a company can handle and store data. As a small business, it’s a big challenge to understand all of these regulations.
Tamara: How do you see your products/services evolving going forward?
Debra: Our capability to objectively assess the way people speak is already finding new applications in pre-employment assessments and customer service. There are many places where our technology can help people be more self-aware about how they come across to their customers, patients, colleagues, and more.
Tamara: What is your favorite AI movie and why?
Debra: Well, I saw it many years ago, but I loved a sci-fi series called Caprica. It was a prequel to Battelstar Gallactica and shows the human story behind the genesis of the robotic Cylons. If I recall correctly, the story begins with a grieving tech tycoon who uses VR and AI to visit and evolve his late daughter’s avatar.
Tamara: What type of advice would you give my readers about AI?
Debra: If you’re interested in learning about AI, there is an excellent course that you can explore for free… https://www.coursera.org/learn/machine-learning This is on my bucket list!
Tamara: How does AI, particularly your product/service, bring goodness to the world? Can you explain how you help people?
Debra: Our company was founded on the concept of helping people to be their personal best. I realized in my own career that often the most knowledgeable people, such as subject matter experts, are not always the most effective communicators. It frustrates me when people don’t get the respect they deserve, when others don’t listen to them or blow off their ideas, just because they aren’t “selling” them well. I want to help people be more self-aware, and empower them to be more effective communicators so that their ideas will be heard!
Tamara: What would be the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you during your company’s evolution?
Debra: I was invited to introduce VoiceVibes to a classroom of students during one of our very first Beta trials years ago. I didn’t want to come across as too eager or excited because the students didn’t know it was our first trial so I was trying to hold in my enthusiasm and act calm and cool.
As I introduced the company and our product, I recorded myself in VoiceVibes. Then, as soon as I left the classroom, I anxiously reviewed my VoiceVibes score. It was embarrassingly low! The software to showed me that I was extremely boring!!!
I now make a very conscious effort to always convey my enthusiasm and not hold back.
Tamara: What are the 3-5 things that most excite you about AI? Why? (industry specific)
Debra: AI provides the capability to find trends to solve problems. In the area of professional development, AI will be a powerful tool to help people identify strengths and weaknesses, optimize the way we are trained, and maximize the ways we apply our skills. For example, our”Vibes” technology is just beginning to be used in the hiring process. Online pre-employment tests objectively measure how “personable” or “authentic” a person sounds. This is just one component of the interview process, but a step in helping call centers and other employers to reduce employee turnover. Similarly, the technology is being adopted in customer service applications so that our technology can objectively monitor how service workers “sound” (our technology measures 20 “vibes” in all, including captivating, detached, condescending, and belligerent) and identify opportunities for training. This will ensure that end consumers receive the best experience every time they interact with representatives of a company.
The idea of individualized learning is so powerful. I am also excited about its capability to enable students to not waste time in school reviewing things they already know, but rather, take them as far as they can go! It is my hope that learning will shift so that someday schools aren’t measured by how well they increase average student performance on standardized tests, but rather how they maximize each individual student’s progress.
Tamara” What are the 3-5 things worry you about AI? Why? (industry specific)
I worry about privacy with regard to biometrics. I scratch my head when companies adopt this for security purposes. Every security technique gets hacked, and then society comes up with new ones. When we defer to DNA or physical properties on my body, where else do we go from there?
Bias is always a concern. Just as a reporter can introduce bias simply by deciding which facts to report or omit in a story, a data scientist could do the same when training an algorithm. All AI does is learn on data that it’s given. So, when the people who are “training” the AI provide a data set, they are introducing bias in the way that they organize and present the data. At VoiceVibes, we use a very clearly defined and objective process to collect and label our data, but people need to know these details before they trust it.
Software typically made decisions by sets of “rules”: consider “IF -THEN” statements. When this is the case, someone could theoretically go into the code and figure out all of the assumptions and rules. AI on the other hand, can make decisions and there is no way a human can ever know exactly what criteria were influencing the decision. As life-critical decisions will eventually be made by AI, it’s scary to lose that transparency.
Tamara: Over the next three years, name at least one thing that we can expect in the future related to AI?
Debra: Algorithms today can detect your emotion from you face, your words, and your voice. As these technologies evolve, we can expect smarter devices and services that understand our mood and make adjustments. Your car can know when you’re getting too sleepy to drive, your music station can suggest a happy song to cheer you up, or your conference call platform can tell you when you sounded least confident in your sales pitch.