At our Girl Geek Dinner on 24th October, we explored the marvel of the human voice. In techie terms, each one of us is a piece of analogue kit and we all have a unique pitch, tone and frequency. Male and female voices have a fundamentally different pitch. Unfortunately, most people in our industry today operate at a low vocal pitch or to put it another way – we have a gender diversity problem.
We teamed up with the Bristol Girl Geek dinners network to host a Girl Geek event at XMOS HQ in Bristol. Over 45 people joined us to learn about the science of voice, see a little deeper into the magic of voice capture technology and find out how a virtual assistant can ‘hear’ your voice across a crowded room and execute your command.
It was a strong showcase of the talent in the South West, with female-identifying techies (and a few men) from across deep tech, finance, marketing, consulting and start-ups. The room was full of courage, easy camaraderie and razor-sharp minds, with representatives from the worlds of cyber-security, robotics, AI and imaging, together with others who are starting a business, freelance, starting a new life, studying or gone back to studying. With so energy and creativity across this space, it’s staggering that there’s still so little diversity.
Separating voice from noise
At the Girl Geek evening, we discussed how success of voice-enabled technology depends on its ability to identify when a human is talking and then isolate that voice signal from other noise such as room echo, other people talking, music and background or outside noise. This is achieved with a series of algorithms, housed on our silicon, which captures speech from across the room, cleans it up and sends the digital command to speech recognition service – such as Amazon Alexa.
Alex Craciun, our Algorithm Engineer, took us through the science of speech and explained that, if we know how speech is produced, we can extract features which model speech-like structures and from there create a speech detection algorithm to identify a speech source or a non-speech source accurately. Gwen Edwards, Director of Product Marketing, was then able to demonstrate the different techniques we use to extract human speech and clean up the digital signal – with the help of a talking lamp and an XMOS development kit that showed how far-field microphones and algorithms capture voice and strip out a cacophony of music to have a clear ‘Alexa ready’ voice command.
From understanding how this works, we then had a glimpse into the future at how other sensors (such as radar and imaging) will augment voice to make our interactions with technology more human. Once a voice assistant is able to sense our identity, mood, routine and personal preferences properly, it can start to evolve into something more meaningful – more like a trusted ‘digital twin’ or augmented extension of ourselves, than a tool to take orders.
Why are events such as Girl Geeks important?
Serrie-Justine Chapman, Founder of Women’s Tech Jobs says: “Bristol Girl Geek Dinners is a great network of over 850 members of brilliant, intelligent women. We welcome all women (or identifying as such) to the group whether already working in tech or simply tech-curious and wanting to see if there’s opportunity that might suit. I spent the majority of my career in that side of the industry, it’s dynamic, cutting edge and all about problem solving – great fun! I’m excited to watch the industry moves forward in such leaps and bounds and to see a Bristol based engineering company like XMOS being at the forefront of it all. Even more importantly, they’ve recognised the importance of encouraging women into the industry and are involving themselves in the change that’s needed. Our thanks to XMOS for a fabulous Girl Geek Dinner – everyone in the group is still buzzing from a great and welcoming evening!”
So, if we want to move the needle on the dial on gender diversity in engineering where do we start? Well, we know that having designated spaces and events for shared learning and networking is proving important for female-identifying individuals in male dominated industries. Promoting effective forms of skills sharing, particularly with networking events lets females absorb experience from others and share experiences with others who are treading a similar path. We’re often at our most aspirational when bouncing ideas and questions off like-minded people. This can be a daunting task for many when faced with a diversity chasm in the room – as is all too often the case with technology events.
If we take a closer look at the issue, simple maths tells us that there are more men in the engineering industry today – so of course it’s going to feel imbalanced. Figures from the Office of National Statistics from Q4 2017 and other reports suggest the UK has the lowest percentage of female engineering professionals in Europe, at just 11 per cent.
To correct that, we have to look at industry representation. Last year, the Joint Council for Qualifications revealed there is now very little gender difference in take up of and achievement in core STEM GCSE subjects. Which sounds like good very news. Unfortunately, the IET also confirmed last year that a mere 15.1 per cent of engineering undergraduates in the UK in 2017 were women. So, how can this drop off be explained? Why aren’t women pursuing engineering in Higher Education? Why is the industry failing to attract women?
Businesses must step up to address the challenge
In short, this industry needs to get smart on making it an attractive workplace for women – with clear career prospects and policies that reflect that. And this needs to happen fast. Everyone across the industry has a role to play in making sure we don’t lose some of the brightest talent available. The UK has a real opportunity to take the lead on breaking down the barriers to entry for women in voice-enabled technology and highlight the endless possibilities for career progression that this and the wider engineering industry has to offer.
And as for us girl geeks? Let’s call time on holding back from opportunities. Seize the day and get your confidence on – the world’s changing. Technology is moving at incredible speed. And it’s time we show just how much we can achieve.
XMOS is hiring!
If you’re interested in finding out more about what it’s like working for a leading company in the voice capture space, with partners such as Amazon Alexa and Infineon, you can browse our jobs or send us your CV with note about why you’d like to work here to firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d love to hear from you.