A Silicon Valley start-up has developed technology that can change the accents of call center workers in real time.
The company, Sanas, told the BBC that its technology could overcome accent-based prejudice and reduce racist abuse faced by staff.
But some critics have called it a move in the wrong direction and say linguistic diversity should be celebrated.
News website SFGATE accused Sanas of making the agents, many of whom are from the global south, “sound white”.
Sanas, which has reportedly received $32 million in funding as of June 2022, describes its technology as an emphasis translation tool.
A section on its website called “Demo” invites visitors to “hear the magic” by playing a recording of someone with an apparently South Asian accent reading a call center script, then clicking a scroll button that turns the speech into a slightly robotic American accent.
“We must build tolerance”
SFGATE accused the startup of trying to make “call center workers sound white and American, no matter what country they’re from.”
But Sharath Keshava Narayana, co-founder of Sanas rejected the claim, telling the BBC’s Tech Tent program that all four founders were immigrants and so were 90% of the company’s employees.
He said the tool was partly inspired by the experience of a close friend of one of the other founders.
This friend, a third-year graduate student studying computer systems engineering at Stanford University in the US, had to return home to Nicaragua to support his parents.
The student found a technical support role at a call center but was fired after three months because, Mr Narayana said, he was discriminated against because of his accent.
A former call center representative himself, Mr Narayana said in his experience agents will be abused or discriminated against because of how they sound – abuse the company believes its technology can prevent.
But Ashleigh Ainsley, co-founder of Color in Tech, argued: “Should we just change people’s skin colors because some people might not like it because they’re racist?
“We cannot move in this direction. We must build tolerance.”
Mr Ainsley said he felt Sanas’ efforts were misguided, explaining: “The problem is with people who feel it’s acceptable to abuse [call centre staff]not with the people who have the accent.”
He said instead more efforts should be made to ensure that diversity in language is celebrated and that racism should not be tolerated.
Asked if technology encouraged racism, Mr Narayana said: “Should the world be better? Absolutely. Should the world be more accepting of diversity and accent? Absolutely yes.
“But call centers have been around for 45 years, and every day an agent goes through those distinctions on every call.”
The company said about 1,000 people are currently using the technology, mostly in the Philippines and India, and said it has been well received, increasing employee retention.
Many call center employees have reported being expected to speak with an American accent. Shalu Yadav, a Delhi-based BBC journalist who worked in three call centers to earn extra money as a student, said employers expected her to learn about American culture and use an American accent.
Ms Yadav also spoke to two people with more recent call center experience about Sanas’ technology.
Both said they felt the technology was a good idea. One spoke of “abuse” they received from some American callers who couldn’t understand their accent.
Another said: “It was always hard to get the grammar right, the pronunciation right, the language right, the slang right. So it used to be an added pressure to get the tone right.”
However, that person felt that the industry had moved on from a preference for American accents and that many companies now expected something more “neutral”.
Sanas said his aim was to improve communication where pronunciation can be a barrier.
He said the companies are testing the technology for internal use, to facilitate communication between teams in Korea and the US, or between teams in North and South India.