The BBC’s virtual assistant is now available for testing in the UK

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A virtual assistant from the BBC which aims to cater for Britain’s many dialects is now available for testing.

Even as a Brit, it can often feel like a translation app is needed between Bristolian, Geordie, Mancunian, Brummie, Scottish, Irish, or any of the other regional dialects in the country. For a geographically small country, we’re a diverse bunch – and US-made voice assistants often struggle with even the slightest accent.

The BBC thinks it can do a better job than the incumbents and first announced its plans to build a voice assistant called ‘Beeb’ in August last year.

Beeb is being trained using the BBC’s staff from around the country. As a public service, the institution aims to offer as wide representation as possible which is reflected in its employees.

The broadcaster also believes that Beeb addresses public concerns about voice assistants; primarily that they collect vast amounts of data for commercial purposes. As a taxpayer-funded service, the BBC does not rely on things like advertising.

“People know and trust the BBC,” a spokesperson told The Guardian last year, “so it will use its role as public service innovator in technology to ensure everyone – not just the tech-elite – can benefit from accessing content and new experiences in this new way.”

An early version of Beeb is now available for testing by UK participants of the Windows Insider program. Microsoft is heavily involved in the Beeb assistant as the company’s Azure AI services are being used by the BBC.

The first version of Beeb allows users to do virtual assistant norms like getting weather updates and the news, access radio and podcasts, and even grab a few jokes from BBC Comedy writers and facts from QI host Sandi Toksvig.

According to the broadcaster, Beeb won’t launch on dedicated hardware but instead will be designed to eventually be implemented in smart speakers, TVs, and mobiles.

While it still has a long way to go to take on the capabilities of Google, Alexa, Siri, and others, Beeb may offer a compelling alternative for accent-heavy Brits that struggle with American voice assistants.

Grab the Beeb app from the Microsoft Store here.

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