MSU making voice-activated AI more accessible, fair

February 5, 2024 - Shelly DeJong

A multidisciplinary team receives a $5 million NSF award to make voice-activated AI accessible and fair to people who stutter


A clip from the HeardAI Youtube video


As artificial intelligence technology advances, one area lags behind: voice-activated AI. For the more than 80 million people who stutter, voice AI technologies, which are increasingly being used in job hiring practices, can still be impossible to navigate.

HeardAI, a multidisciplinary project from Michigan State University, Western Michigan University, and the nonprofit Friends: The National Association of Young People Who Stutter, has advanced to Phase 2 of the National Science Foundation’s Convergence Accelerator program to address this challenge. This advancement comes with a $5 million award to continue their work to make voice-activated AI accessible and fair to people who stutter.

“We are grateful for being selected for Phase 2, a milestone that validates the hard work of our multidisciplinary team,” said Nihar Mahapatra, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at MSU and the project’s principal investigator. “This phase provides us an exciting opportunity to refine and develop sustainable and impactful accessible voice AI solutions for people who stutter, advancing inclusion in an increasingly voice-mediated digital world.”

HeardAI’s goal is to transform voice AI technology accessibility for people who stutter, then eventually benefit all users. Their goal is to offer accessibility guidance for compliance checking, a realistic stuttered speech testbed for product evaluation, an app and an application programming interface to make voice-activated products and services accessible.

At the end of Phase 2, HeardAI is expected by the NSF to provide high-impact deliverables that will be sustainable beyond their support.

The multidisciplinary team consists of MSU’s Nihar Mahapatra from the College of Engineering; Ann Marie Ryan from the Department of Psychology; J. Scott Yaruss from the Department of Communicative Sciences and Disorders; as well as Hope Gerlach-Houck from Western Michigan Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences; and Caryn Herring, the executive director of Friends: The National Association of Young People Who Stutter.

“From the start, it’s been really important to our team that individuals who stutter have a voice in this project,” said Herring. “We have been working hand –in hand with people who stutter to ensure that we can best serve the stuttering community and make AI more accessible. Beyond the obvious excitement to be able to continue working on this project, being awarded this NSF award sends a message to people who stutter that our voices matter and we deserve to be heard.”