IUI 2024
Conference paper

Creating an African American-Sounding TTS: Guidelines, Technical Challenges, and Surprising Evaluations


Representations of AI agents in user interfaces and robotics are predominantly White, not only in terms of facial and skin features but also in the synthetic voices they use. In this paper we explore some unexpected challenges in the representation of race we found in the process of developing an U.S. English Text-to-Speech (TTS) system aimed to sound like an educated, professional, regional accent-free African American woman. The paper starts by presenting the results of focus groups with African American IT professionals where guidelines and challenges for the creation of a representative and appropriate TTS system were discussed and gathered, followed by a discussion about some of the technical difficulties faced by the TTS system developers. We then describe two studies with U.S. English speakers where the participants were not able to attribute the correct race to the African American TTS voice while overwhelmingly correctly recognizing the race of a White TTS system of similar quality. A focus group with African American IT workers not only confirmed the representativeness of the African American voice we built but also suggested that the surprising recognition results may have been caused by the inability or the latent prejudice from non-African Americans to associate educated, non-vernacular, professionally-sounding voices to Black people.