✍️ alexa, give me the news

We welcome our robot newscasters

Allow me to introduce you to Brian and Kendra, the new hosts of Quartz’s newscast.

They’re robots.


Every day, all day, Brian and Kendra read headlines from around the global economy in the conversational, sometimes playful voice familiar to users of Quartz’s mobile app.

If you have an Amazon Alexa device, you can add Quartz to your news playlist, which Amazon calls the “Flash Briefing,” either online or in the Alexa app. Then say, “Alexa, what’s the news?”

Quartz Flash Briefing from John Keefe on Vimeo.

Three times a day, or when news breaks, the written words from five stories are sent to a text-to-speech service called Polly, another Amazon product. “Brian” and “Kendra” are two of many voices available on the Polly service.

In mere moments, we get back an .mp3 audio file for each story, with the written words converted into synthesized speech. That audio becomes the newscast.

Did he say Drumpf?

The speech synthesis is remarkably good, but the bots still bumble some words and phrases. For example, “Boeing 747” becomes “Boeing seven hundred and forty seven.”

And Brian kept calling Donald Trump “Donald Drumb.”

That was problematic. Fortunately, we can manually specify the pronunciations of certain words using the international phonetic alphabet. We have a running document of corrections, which Amazon calls a lexicon, and invoke it when we convert the text to speech.

So Brian now knows “Trump” should be “tɹ.ʌmp”:

We also learned that the bots see through weak attempts at modesty, dropping a profanity into one of our prototype newscasts.

Feedback welcome

Despite some hiccups, we’re pretty happy with our new hosts, and find them an improvement over our previous version, in which Alexa read from the Quartz Daily Brief.

While that worked, we’ve found it can be hard to listen to Alexa reading several paragraphs of any text. Alternating voices and using more conversational writing seems to work better.

Also, we really like the quality of the British man’s voice. There’s been a lot of conversation here about whether it’s because he’s British. Do we, as speakers of US English, have more tolerance for robots speaking in an accent?

Here, again, is the link to add Quartz to your Flash Briefing on Alexa.

We’d love to hear about your thoughts and observations about this project. Drop us a note at bots@qz.com, and tell us what you think.