Co-founder of Silicon Valley startup says accent-removing technology is not racist

Co-founder explains Sanas' origin story and why he believes they are connecting worlds, rather than playing into racism

Kristen Sze Image
Thursday, August 25, 2022
Co-founder of startup says accent-removing technology is not racist
Silicon Valley startup Sanas' speech synthesizer can remove non-American accents but has critics claiming it is whitewashing or playing into racism.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Sanas is a new Silicon Valley startup that's attracted tons of attention and funding, but it's also sparked controversy. Founded by Stanford graduates, Sanas' speech synthesizer can turn accented English into non-accented American English in real-time.

Co-founder and COO Shareth Keshava Narayana was on ABC7's "Getting Answers" this week and told ABC7 News anchor Kristen Sze their origin story. One of the founders was fired from his call center job for speaking with an accent and being deemed poor at communicating with customers.

This issue is common, as many American companies outsource their call centers to India and the Philippines, where English is spoken, though with their distinct sounds.

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The founders realized that much of call center workers' abuse is either tied to customers' bias against accented English speakers, their frustration that the call is taking too long, or their inability to understand the worker on the other end. Without condoning bias, Narayana says Sanas' technology can help protect workers and their livelihoods.

"I don't know if I can change the world, but if I can help the agents go back home with a smile on their face and not be abused, I'll take that win any day," Narayana said.

Narayana described the technology on ABC7 News as a demo was played. A male call center worker with Indian accented speech says "Hi, this is Alex from customer service aid, how are you today? Great to hear, I'm doing very well. Thank you very much for asking. How can I help you today?"

With Sanas' synthesizer, the same speech was suddenly accent-less, if a bit robotic.

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While critics see it's either whitewashing or playing into racism, Sanas' founders remain optimistic that they are connecting worlds. They hope to be able to translate speech into other regional accents to facilitate communication.

Sanas' roadmap looks ambitious. At least seven outsourcing firms have already deployed Sanas products in their call centers, according to the company's promotional material. The company even has plans to open a headquarters in India.

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