The BBC plans to launch its own virtual assistant next year

The BBC has announced plans to launch its own virtual assistant next year in a surprising move that will see it go head-to-head against established giants.

You’d be forgiven for double-checking it’s not April 1st today, but the British broadcaster’s plans are very much real. Although it’s a working title, the wake-word “Beeb” is currently being considered to activate the assistant.

The BBC believes having full control over its own assistant will allow it to experiment with new features and experiences without being limited by the platform or having to request permission.

According to the BBC, their virtual assistant won’t launch on dedicated hardware but instead will be designed to be implemented in all smart speakers, TVs, and mobiles. By “all,” it’s safe to presume the BBC means popular devices in those categories.

Given the BBC’s global presence, it will be interesting whether attempts will be made to launch on devices that are not commercially available in Western markets such as Baidu’s smart speakers.

With 3,700 percent growth year-on-year, research firm Canalys says Baidu has overtaken Google to become the world’s second most popular smart speakers. Reaching markets such as China offers huge opportunities for a broadcaster, although strict government control makes penetration difficult.

China allows foreign broadcasters such as the BBC World Service to operate in the country but it maintains strict control over their operation.

Earlier this year, the BBC’s China correspondent Stephen McDonell filmed the broadcast of his report being cut as he began to speak about the treatment of the Turkic ethnic minority in the northwestern Xinjiang province. Meanwhile, CNN has reported their broadcast agreement in China requires their signal to pass through a Chinese-controlled satellite.

At least initially, it seems the BBC is focused on launching its virtual assistant nationally. BBC staff around the UK have been invited to record their voices in order to help train the virtual assistant to understand various accents across the country.

Despite improvements in recent years, Western virtual assistants from the likes of Google, Apple, and Amazon are trained predominantly with American accents. The BBC’s assistant could recognise UK voices better – and offer more relevant content – but it’s hard to imagine the broadcaster competing with Silicon Valley giants on a technological level.

With potentially anyone able to put out voice “news” over a smart speaker, helping to ensure people get their information from a more trusted source like the BBC is perhaps vital to counter disinformation.

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