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Mozilla’s Katharina Borchert is giving voice to the internet

Common Voice is bringing tens of thousands of new vocal recordings to voice-recognition developers.

Mozilla’s Katharina Borchert is giving voice to the internet
[Illustration: Erick Davila]
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Lots of people advocate for an open internet, but Katharina Borchert is in a unique position to help make it a reality. As the leader of Mozilla’s Open Innovation projects, she oversaw the release this past February of more than 4,200 hours of voice recordings from more than 259,000 contributors in 40 languages (numbers that continue to grow). Known as Common Voice, it allows developers to create voice-­recognition tools from a variety of speakers, training AI not to get tripped up by women or non-native speakers (a common problem).

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Fast Company: How has Common Voice influenced your views about accessibility?

Katharina Borchert: It drove us to think not just about the diversity that we want represented in our innovation but how we can preserve the cultural diversity that this world holds. In a [time] when everything has become centralized and we all use the same platforms, English has become the lingua franca of the internet. I’m often concerned that cultural richness and diversity might get lost. It’s great if you bring connectivity to rural villages in India or Uganda, but in regions where the literacy rate isn’t high, and people speak one or two minority tribal languages, what do people do [once they’re] online? Is there content that is accessible and useful to them in their language?

FC: Has this led to any specific projects at Mozilla?

KB: We kicked off a test drive in Rwanda last year to build super-specific use cases [that would help other organizations develop language-­specific content]. We’re looking for startups in healthcare and agriculture to partner with. We have interest from the governments in Uganda and India.

FC: What impact has COVID-19 had on how you see your work?

KB: Nobody thinks of building anything proprietary right now. Everyone just wants to do the right thing: share designs, share learnings, so somebody somewhere else can run with [it]. I really hope that when all of this is over, we can keep some of this spirit, and this shared experience, going.