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The Techcrunch Interviews: Talkitt: Giving Disabled People a Voice

At Media Jobs we like to bring you the most inno­v­a­tive com­pa­nies.  In this inter­view we will learn about a dis­abil­i­ty inno­va­tion from a new com­pa­ny that could help dis­abled peo­ple regain their voice. About 1.5% of peo­ple in the West­ern World have some form of com­mu­ni­ca­tions lim­i­ta­tions due to med­ical con­di­tions includ­ing Motor Neu­rone Dis­ease, Cere­bral Pal­sy, Stroke, Brain Dam­age and Autism. Cur­rent “talk” solu­tions uti­lize body move­ments how­ev­er they do not tru­ly enable the indi­vid­u­als to actu­al­ly speak.


Talkitt is unique in that it is an inex­pen­sive smart phone app that will use the users own voice to communicate.

Imag­ine hav­ing some­thing to say but no way to com­mu­ni­cate it.  Talkitt’s Chief Exec­u­tive (CEO) Dan­ny Weiss­berg came up with the idea in Israel back in 2012 after his grand­moth­er had a stroke that severe­ly impaired her speech.

We spoke with Talkit­t’s US head of Busi­ness Devel­op­ment, Sara Smol­ley to learn more about this yet to be released product.


Roy: This is Roy Weiss­man from We’re talk­ing with Sara Smol­ley from Voiceitt.


You have a prod­uct called Talkitt. What is Talkitt? What was the rea­son for cre­at­ing it? What prob­lems are we solving.


Sara: Talkitt is a speech recog­ni­tion tech­nol­o­gy that trans­lates the speech of peo­ple with speech dis­abil­i­ties in real time.


Roy: Has no one been doing that? I don’t know if you’ve read about the Sum­n­er Redstone?


Sara: No.


Roy: Have you read about the Sum­n­er Red­stone law­suit? Recent­ly, Sum­n­er Red­stone, the own­er of Via­com, is 90-some­thing years old and has a prob­lem speak­ing. There’s actu­al­ly a nurse that’s trans­lat­ing what he’s say­ing. Maybe your soft­ware could help. Could you give me a sense of why you guys cre­at­ed this product?


Sara: Absolute­ly. Each per­son on our team has a per­son­al inter­est. A fam­i­ly mem­ber or friend that has a com­mu­ni­ca­tion dis­or­der. Actu­al­ly, it’s real­ly more than you think. About 1.5% of the pop­u­la­tion has some sort of com­mu­ni­ca­tion dis­or­der. Com­mu­ni­ca­tion dis­or­ders is a ris­ing trend among chil­dren in the Unit­ed States. If you think of aging pop­u­la­tions in the devel­oped world in the US, Europe, South Korea … Peo­ple are get­ting old­er and along with that comes dis­eases relat­ed to age. Degen­er­a­tive dis­eases, ALS, MS, Parkin­son’s dis­ease. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, many times the progress of the dis­ease comes along with extreme­ly severe speech impair­ment. Espe­cial­ly with some­body that does­n’t have a cog­ni­tive dis­abil­i­ty, it hurts them the most that they could appear to have a cog­ni­tive dis­abil­i­ty because they can’t com­mu­ni­cate in a clear and coher­ent fash­ion. That’s a prob­lem that we aim to solve. We real­ly believe that by giv­ing peo­ple their voic­es back can real­ly change their lives.


Roy: Is each per­son with a speech imped­i­ment have the same issues? Or are dif­fer­ent peo­ple with dif­fer­ent dis­eases … How do you match up dif­fer­ent speech imped­i­ments? Aren’t they all unique to the individual?


Sara: Absolute­ly, that’s the core of what we’re doing. We see each per­son with their unique way of speak­ing. These peo­ple with a unique lan­guage. As stan­dard voice recog­ni­tion, the way it works with stan­dard speech. What we’re mak­ing is a tech­nol­o­gy that works for peo­ple with non-stan­dard speech. With a unique pro­nun­ci­a­tion and a unique language.


Roy: When was this com­pa­ny found­ed? Who found­ed it?


Sara: The founder of the com­pa­ny is our CEO, Dan­ny Weiss­berg. He co-found­ed it with our now CTO, Stas Yunkin. Both of them with a tech­nol­o­gy back­ground. In the case of Dan­ny, his grand­moth­er sud­den­ly had a stroke and overnight lost her abil­i­ty to com­mu­ni­cate clear­ly. He often tells this sto­ry. It res­onates with a lot of us who know that com­mu­ni­ca­tion, or lack there­of, it has a tremen­dous impact on your inter­ac­tions and rela­tion­ship with a per­son. Stas, our CTO, is an expert in sig­nal pro­cess­ing and machine learn­ing and is lead­ing our algo­rithm team, where each of our devel­op­ers has this rare com­bi­na­tion of skills. Lin­guis­tics and algo­rithm devel­op­ment, machine learning.


Roy: When did you guys start this product?


Sara: The com­pa­ny was found­ed in 2012, but our prod­uct Talkitt, we start­ed a cou­ple years ago. I’m new to the team, just a few months.


Roy: How many cus­tomers do you have for the product?


Sara: The pro­duc­t’s not avail­able. It’s not avail­able for sale yet. We are in beta ver­sion right now. We’re test­ing with select­ed part­ners in Israel, Europe and here in the US. Our US sub­sidiary is based out of Buf­fa­lo, NY. We’re work­ing with dis­abil­i­ties orga­ni­za­tions and clin­ics, pos­si­bly hos­pi­tals as well, to test the prod­uct with med­ical pro­fes­sion­als and speech lan­guage pathol­o­gists to get the input that we need to fur­ther devel­op Talkitt until it’s ready for mar­ket. Prob­a­bly the end of this year.


Roy: You’re antic­i­pat­ing that this would be sold direct­ly to con­sumers or be an insti­tu­tion­al product?


Sara: The first ren­di­tion of Talkitt will be as a mobile appli­ca­tion avail­able direct­ly to end users through the app store for a sub­scrip­tion fee of about $20 a month, which is very, almost laugh­ably, com­pet­i­tive in the industry.


Roy: In oth­er words, they would have an app and if they talked on the phone, it would con­vert it into more under­stand­able language?


Sara: The way it works is very sim­i­lar to what you would think of in speech recog­ni­tion. Yes, the per­son will be hold­ing their device, either an iPad or an iPhone, speak into it and the machine will trans­late their speech. It is impor­tant to note that the first ver­sion of the prod­uct will be based on a lim­it­ed vocab­u­lary. Peo­ple with very severe speech impair­ments where a dic­tio­nary of 10 word where the machine can under­stand and trans­late about 10–20 words is a life-chang­er for them. Lat­er ver­sions will allow greater free­dom in allow­ing the per­son to com­mu­ni­cate with more sen­tences and for mild­ly impaired speakers.


Roy: Do you have any sense of the per­cent­age of the pop­u­la­tion that would need this or ben­e­fit from this?


Sara: Per­cent­age of the gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion is about 1.5% percent.


Roy: Are you talk­ing about the US or worldwide?


Sara: World­wide. We have mar­ket research relat­ing to the exact num­bers for the Unit­ed States and extrap­o­lat­ed to Europe. It’s a big­ger num­ber than you would think.


Roy: Is there any­one else doing this currently?


Sara: There is many com­mu­ni­ca­tion devices. It’s called aug­men­ta­tive assis­tive com­mu­ni­ca­tion devices. AAC. Amaz­ing tech­nolo­gies from eye track­ing to track­ing dif­fer­ent move­ments in the body, but there’s no oth­er com­mu­ni­ca­tion device, that we know about, that allows the per­son to com­mu­ni­cate using their own voice.


Roy: The oth­er ones are hav­ing them com­mu­ni­cate how?


Sara: There might be an eye track­ing device where the per­son will use dif­fer­ent eye move­ments to sig­ni­fy words and let­ters. There’s also com­mu­ni­ca­tion boards which could be used in an iPad where the per­son would point or touch dif­fer­ent images. That would be anoth­er way to com­mu­ni­cate. All of this is solv­ing the com­mu­ni­ca­tion prob­lem by bypass­ing the voice altogether.


Roy: You’re just using the voice, which is a first?


Sara: Exact­ly.


Roy: You’re not antic­i­pat­ing even hav­ing a prod­uct until the end of 2016?


Sara: To the gen­er­al pub­lic? The end of this year, yes.


Roy: At that point, it’s going to be lim­it­ed with only 10 words?


Sara: Yes.


Roy: Do you have any sense of when they think they’ll have a more robust vocabulary?


Sara: An expand­ed vocab­u­lary and greater free­dom in the use of the app, will be a sec­ond ver­sion in 2017. It’s impor­tant to note that an impor­tant fea­ture of Talkitt is that as peo­ple use it, the machine con­tin­ues to adapt to the per­son­’s unique pro­nun­ci­a­tion. The machine actu­al­ly gets more effi­cient and robust as the per­son uses it. We’re also cre­at­ing a voice record­ing data­base. As the per­son uses Talkitt, we’re stor­ing the voic­es. We believe that this voice record­ing data­base and this data does­n’t real­ly exist yet. We see it as a poten­tial­ly mon­e­ti­z­able vehi­cle for big data, and, poten­tial­ly, a research tool for voice dis­or­dered speech, more generally.


Roy: This is basi­cal­ly arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence. It’s learn­ing how peo­ple speak. How does it know it’s using the right words?


Sara: The words of the user? The user will train the app. There is a short cal­i­bra­tion phase. Let’s say you make a dic­tio­nary start­ing with 10 words. You’ll train the app. It takes a few min­utes. The user will repeat the word a cou­ple times, 3 or 4 times. That’s how the machine ini­tial­ly calibrates.


Roy: In essence, a lot of the soft­ware would devel­op unique­ly to the indi­vid­ual. The indi­vid­ual would be train­ing the app to learn more and more words. Is that correct?


Sara: Yeah, that’s right.


Roy: That sounds excit­ing. What made you decide to come work for this company?


Sara: It’s a longer sto­ry for why I decid­ed to start to work for Voiceitt. I grew up in Mia­mi. I spent the last 5 years in Asia. I was work­ing for star­tups. My first expo­sure to tech­nol­o­gy was in South Korea. It was through Kore­ans that I learned about the inno­va­tion scene in Tel Aviv. I went over there about a year ago and start­ed free­lanc­ing in social tech­nol­o­gy. Then, I found Voiceitt. It was around the time that the com­pa­ny won a busi­ness com­pe­ti­tion called 43North. We won half a mil­lion dol­lars and opened up an office. Now, we’re in Buffalo.


Roy: That sounds excit­ing. Are you guys hir­ing at this point?


Sara: We are look­ing for algo­rithm developers.


Roy: If you’re an algo­rithm devel­op­er, you want to hear from them.


Sara: Sure.


Roy: Is that in the US or overseas?


Sara: In any of our loca­tions, we need the best of algo­rithm devel­op­ers. Peo­ple inter­est­ed in speech research and social enterprise.


Roy: That sounds great. Is there any­thing else you want to share that I did­n’t ask about Talkitt.


Sara: Just that we’re a com­pa­ny with a mis­sion. We’re at the inter­sec­tions of tech­nol­o­gy and med­i­cine. It’s a real excit­ing field to be in.


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