People

Microsoft wants to take AI voices everywhere

By adding safeguards, Microsoft wants to ensure deepfake voices aren't being abused.

Duolingo Bea character

Duolingo gave its Bea character its own voice, with a little help from some neural networks.

Image: Duolingo

Get ready for every brand and app to have its own voice: Microsoft started to make its custom neural voice product more widely available to commercial partners Wednesday, allowing companies to generate their own voices for chatbots and other interactive applications. Custom neural voices are based on Microsoft's Azure AI platform, and use neural networks to create voices that don't have a robotic sound, like old-school text-to-speech technology.

The company spotlighted some early high-profile customers:

  • AT&T is using custom neural voice tech to bring Bugs Bunny in its Dallas experience store to life. Customers are greeted by name, and can chat with the Looney Tunes character while exploring the store.
  • Progressive created a voice chatbot for Flo, the omnipresent face of the insurance brand.
  • Duolingo is using custom neural voice to create multilingual voices for a set of characters, meant to bring personality to its language-learning app. Soon, you'll be able to choose whether you'd rather get help with your Japanese lessons from an emo teenager, a video game-loving kiddo who eats too much candy or a speed-talker who thinks she is always right.

To create these voices, Microsoft is asking companies to supply them with speech samples; for AT&T's Bugs Bunny, a voice actor recorded 2,000 phrases and lines. Azure AI then uses two neural networks to turn text into speech that actually pronounces words correctly, and also gets the tone and duration of each and every phoneme right.

Microsoft isn't the first company to use AI for custom voices. Google and Amazon have both generated celebrity voices for their respective assistants in the past, and Amazon recently announced that it would white-label Alexa, complete with custom voices. In October, Toronto-based Resemble AI launched Localize, a service that clones voices to produce translated audio recordings in a number of different languages.

With AI getting better and better at creating voices that are indistinguishable from real recordings, we'll likely also see a whole new wave of deepfake audio. Microsoft, for its part, went out of its way to stress that it is aware of the potential for abuse:

  • The company will limit access to its custom neural voice product to pre-approved partners, who have to contractually agree to a code of conduct.
  • Customers also have to agree to add disclaimers to their applications if consumers could mistake an AI voice for a real person.
  • The company is exploring the use of watermarks to make sure that AI recordings aren't used out of context.
  • Microsoft is also asking voice actors to acknowledge within their recordings that they are knowingly participating in an AI voice project — a safeguard against voice hijacking.

"As creators of this technology, we have an obligation to make sure it's used responsibly," said Azure AI platform VP Eric Boyd. "We're careful with the partners we work with in making sure they follow the guidelines."

A version of this story will appear in this week's Next Up newsletter.

Image: Yuanxin

Yuanxin Technology doesn't hide its ambition. In the first line of its prospectus, the company says its mission is to be the "first choice for patients' healthcare and medication needs in China." But the road to winning the crowded China health tech race is a long one for this Tencent- and Sequoia-backed startup, even with a recent valuation of $4 billion, according to Chinese publication Lieyunwang. Here's everything you need to know about Yuanxin Technology's forthcoming IPO on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.

What does Yuanxin do?

There are many ways startups can crack open the health care market in China, and Yuanxin has focused on one: prescription drugs. According to its prospectus, sales of prescription drugs outside hospitals account for only 23% of the total healthcare market in China, whereas that number is 70.2% in the United States.

Yuanxin started with physical stores. Since 2015, it has opened 217 pharmacies immediately outside Chinese hospitals. "A pharmacy has to be on the main road where a patient exits the hospital. It needs to be highly accessible," Yuanxin founder He Tao told Chinese media in August. Then, patients are encouraged to refill their prescriptions on Yuanxin's online platforms and to follow up with telehealth services instead of returning to a hospital.

From there, Yuanxin has built a large product portfolio that offers online doctor visits, pharmacies and private insurance plans. It also works with enterprise clients, designing office automation and prescription management systems for hospitals and selling digital ads for big pharma.

Yuanxin's Financials

Yuanxin's annual revenues have been steadily growing from $127 million in 2018 to $365 million in 2019 and $561 million in 2020. In each of those three years, over 97% of revenue came from "out-of-hospital comprehensive patient services," which include the company's physical pharmacies and telehealth services. More specifically, approximately 83% of its retail sales derived from prescription drugs.

But the company hasn't made a profit. Yuanxin's annual losses grew from $17 million in 2018 to $26 million in 2019 and $48 million in 2020. The losses are moderate considering the ever-growing revenues, but cast doubt on whether the company can become profitable any time soon. Apart from the cost of drug supplies, the biggest spend is marketing and sales.

What's next for Yuanxin

There are still abundant opportunities in the prescription drug market. In 2020, China's National Medical Products Administration started to explore lifting the ban on selling prescription drugs online. Although it's unclear when the change will take place, it looks like more purely-online platforms will be able to write prescriptions in the future. With its established market presence, Yuanxin is likely one of the players that can benefit greatly from such a policy change.

The enterprise and health insurance businesses of Yuanxin are still fairly small (accounting for less than 3% of annual revenue), but this is where the company sees an opportunity for future growth. Yuanxin is particularly hoping to power its growth with data and artificial intelligence. It boasts a database of 14 million prescriptions accumulated over years, and the company says the data can be used in many ways: designing private insurance plans, training doctors and offering chronic disease management services. The company says it currently employs 509 people on its R&D team, including 437 software engineers and 22 data engineers and scientists.

What Could Go Wrong?

The COVID-19 pandemic has helped sell the story of digital health care, but Yuanxin isn't the only company benefiting from this opportunity. 2020 has seen a slew of Chinese health tech companies rise. They either completed their IPO process before Yuanxin (like JD, Alibaba and Ping An's healthcare subsidiaries) or are close to it (WeDoctor and DXY). In this crowded sector, Yuanxin faces competition from both companies with Big Tech parent companies behind them and startups that have their own specialized advantages.

Like each of its competitors, Yuanxin needs to be careful with how it processes patient data — some of the most sensitive personal data online. Recent Chinese legislation around personal data has made it clear that it will be increasingly difficult to monetize user data. In the prospectus, Yuanxin elaborately explained how it anonymizes data and prevents data from being leaked or hacked, but it also admitted that it cannot foresee what future policies will be introduced.

Who Gets Rich

  • Yuanxin's founder and CEO He Tao and SVP He Weizhuang own 29.82% of the company's shares through a jointly controlled company. (It's unclear whether He Tao and He Weizhuang are related.)
  • Tencent owns 19.55% of the shares.
  • Sequoia owns 16.21% of the shares.
  • Other major investors include Qiming, Starquest Capital and Kunling, which respectively own 7.12%, 6.51% and 5.32% of the shares.

What People Are Saying

  • "The demands of patients, hospitals, insurance companies, pharmacies and pharmaceutical companies are all different. How to meet each individual demand and find a core profit model is the key to Yuanxin Technology's future growth." — Xu Yuchen, insurance industry analyst and member of China Association of Actuaries, in Chinese publication Lanjinger.
  • "The window of opportunity caused by the pandemic, as well as the high valuations of those companies that have gone public, brings hope to other medical services companies…[But] the window of opportunity is closing and the potential of Internet healthcare is yet to be explored with new ideas. Therefore, traditional, asset-heavy healthcare companies need to take this opportunity and go public as soon as possible." —Wang Hang, founder and CEO of online healthcare platform Haodf, in state media China.com.

Zeyi Yang
Zeyi Yang is a reporter with Protocol | China. Previously, he worked as a reporting fellow for the digital magazine Rest of World, covering the intersection of technology and culture in China and neighboring countries. He has also contributed to the South China Morning Post, Nikkei Asia, Columbia Journalism Review, among other publications. In his spare time, Zeyi co-founded a Mandarin podcast that tells LGBTQ stories in China. He has been playing Pokemon for 14 years and has a weird favorite pick.

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