Apple has revealed a number of new accessibility features for the iPhone and iPad, including one that, with just 15 minutes of training, can imitate a user’s voice during phone calls.
Users will be able to read text prompts to capture audio and have the technology learn their speech with a forthcoming product called Personal Speech. The “synthesized voice” will then be used by a related function called Live Speech to read the user’s typed text aloud during phone calls, FaceTime talks, and in-person interactions. Additionally, users will be able to save words and phrases for usage in actual interactions.
The function is one of many designed to make Apple’s products more accessible for those with mobility, cognitive, vision, and hearing impairments. The tools will be particularly useful to persons who may have illnesses like ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), which can cause progressive voice loss.
Sarah Herrlinger, Apple’s senior director of Global Accessibility Policy and Initiatives, in a company blog post, revealed that “These groundbreaking features were designed with feedback from members of disability communities every step of the way, to support a diverse set of users and help people connect in new ways.” Apple announced that the features would be available to the public later this year.
While these innovations may be able to address a genuine need, they also come at a time when advances in artificial intelligence have sparked concerns about fraudulent individuals deceiving or misleading the public by creating convincing fake audio and video.
According to Apple’s blog post, Personal Voice includes “on-device machine learning to keep users’ information private and secure.”
Other technology companies have tried speech imitation using AI. An update to Amazon’s Alexa system, which would enable the technology to imitate any voice, including that of a departed family member, was announced last year. (The application is still not being made public).
Apple also revealed Assistive Access, which integrates a number of the most popular iOS apps, including FaceTime, Messages, Camera, Photos, Music, and Phone, into a single Calls app. For those who might prefer visual or auditory conversations, the interface offers high-contrast buttons, large text labels, an option for an emoji-only keyboard, and the capability to record video messages.
Apple is also making updates to the Magnifier app for people who are visually impaired. To improve user interaction with actual things, it will now come with a detection mode. The update would let users, for instance, place an iPhone camera up in front of a microwave and drag their finger around the keypad as the app labels and reads the text on the buttons of the microwave.