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The BBC's first year in Voice

Mukul Devichand

Executive Editor, BBC Voice + AI

“You will be watching the birth of a new art.” With these words, the BBC’s Deputy Director General explained to the public that it was entering a nascent, uncertain, even frightening technological frontier.

The corporation had decided to launch services for an exciting new platform that threatened to disrupt the medium of radio forever. They’d done this, despite the fact that only 20,000 households had the relevant devices to access these services.

The year was 1936 and the BBC entered this new platform – known as television – far ahead of the global curve, transmitting mainly variety shows (imagine a sort of vintage One Show) twice a day from a London hilltop.

“We do not pretend to have passed the experimental stage,” Vice-Admiral Sir Charles Carpendale explained to the British public in the Radio Times. “Our engineers are still learning, and so are the men and women responsible for the creative work of planning and performing programmes.”

Eighty-two years on, and we’re learning again. Over the past year, I’ve been the BBC editor leading a similar “new art” alongside my master engineer colleague Andy Webb.

We jointly lead new teams that are tackling the BBC’s latest technological frontier: Voice assistants, and the related so-called Artificial Intelligence programming that powers them.

Simply put, “BBC Voice + AI” refers to our offers for smart speakers and in future other voice-controlled media devices such as TVs, phones, in-car assistants and even microwaves. These devices are finding their way into a growing number of homes in the UK and worldwide.

Our focus is on what happens when people talk to devices using ordinary human language, instead of using buttons or dials, to get the BBC services they want.

Just like the emergence of television, this is an uncertain new technology that might well signal a major shift in the media landscape. And, if the era of social media, fake news and filter bubbles has taught us anything, it’s that it’s important to master new technologies so that the principles of public service broadcasting endure.

We’ve been at it a year, more or less - we started getting teams together in late 2017. Although I should say we built on great work by BBC teams such as Newslabs and the work BBC R&D did on the interactive sci-fi drama, The Inspection Chamber.

It’s important to say that, just like our 1936 forebears, it’s early days and we don’t pretend to have passed the experimental stage.

But a lot has happened in a year.

18 million news summaries and 265 million streams

A lot of the past twelve months has been spent growing what must surely be the most exciting team in the new medium – because we get to combine voice technology with the BBC’s creative mission and public values.

We’ve set up centres in London, Manchester and Glasgow, where software developers work alongside creative producers and designers. If the work sounds interesting to you, watch this space for future hires.

We’re just getting going – but the good news is that we’ve already managed to provide value for many more homes than the 20,000 reached by the theatrical turns and variety acts of early BBC television.

At the core of the Voice + AI offer we have created so far is the idea the BBC’s existing content should be accessible to those license fee payers who choose to use their voice to get it. Just say our name and we are there.

The key to this was launching a series of BBC apps for smart speaker platforms. Our offer is currently most developed on Amazon Alexa, with plans to extend our services on other platforms such as Google Assistant, and far beyond.

We first launched the BBC “skill” (as Amazon calls them) in December 2017, focussing on live radio and podcasts. We’ve been improving the experience all year – integrating some of the great new BBC Sounds audio content, for example, and (as of a month ago) adding in the vast library of on-demand BBC radio programmes.

Audiences started strong and kept growing. We have served 265 million audio streams on Alexa-enabled devices over the past 12 months.

Our early focus has also been on one of the BBC’s core missions: impartial, accurate news.

BBC News bulletins are now available on all the major voice assistants - Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant and Apple Siri – in audio and video briefings. Just ask them for BBC News. Over the year, we estimate having served close to over 20 million briefings.

But there’s potential to do much more, and we’re looking at how both news content and technology can be more native to Voice + AI. Watch out in 2019 for upgrades to the BBC News experience on voice platforms.

A new storytelling medium

The BBC’s core mission has been the same for nearly 100 years, but the exciting thing about working here is always finding new and creative ways to deliver it.

We’ve tried to take on the philosophy of people like Leslie Mitchell – who even back in 1936 realised that television would require a new way of doing things from radio. As presenter of the BBC’s first TV show, for example, he realised it would be unrealistic to remain anonymous as radio presenters then did.

In place of interviews with musical interludes, we in Voice instead used 2018 to create chances for children to talk to Duggee, the Go Jetters and Waffle The Wonder Dog. These and other beloved Cbeebies characters are part of the BBC Kids offer on smart speakers – just ask for BBC Kids.

Starting with the youngest audiences, we’re testing out different patterns of voice-activated play – like quizzes, games or musical experiences. We want to see what kinds of conversations people actually want to have with the BBC.

But we’re also giving kids – and parents – the chance to hear a Bedtime Story. The BBC Kids skill has wonderful stories from the Cbeebies show, read by talents such as Tom Hardy and Dolly Parton.

Our kids offer is still very experimental but growing fast. Other things we’ve tried out this year involved the summer of sport.

People could say “BBC, take me to the world cup” – or “the tennis” – or “the tour” – and be transported to regular updates from Russia, Wimbledon’s Centre Court or the Tour De France.

During the Edinburgh Festival, we offered people the chance to ask for a “Late Night Laugh” and to enter the land of sleep with up and coming comic talent.

These relatively small experiments will inform further learning exercises over the coming year, as we slowly begin to understand the platform better.

A technological frontier

Behind the experiments, deeper questions remain, which we’ll strive to tackle in 2019.

As the UK’s – and world’s – largest public service broadcaster, what does it mean to have a conversation with the BBC?

How can we be sure to harness Voice + AI technology to provide the cohesive, impartial and editorially rich services that people will rightly expect from us?

How can we address public concerns over privacy and personal choice in these new environments?

I hope 2019 will see us growing and deepening our relationship with audiences using Voice and AI platforms. As Carpendale wrote in 1936: “We in the BBC are keen to push forward as soon as is practicable, and in so doing justify the confidence placed in us.”