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AI has finally given us a speech coach that won’t fall in love with its students

  • Justin Caffier
9/20/2022

A check-in with Yoodli, the speech startup that won the 2022 Young Entrepreneur of the Year awards.

As George Bernard Shaw conveyed in his theatrical take on the Greek myth of Pygmalion, humans have a tendency to fall in love with their passion projects. Whether a philosopher king in ancient Cyprus sculpting the perfect woman or a linguist taking advantage of a poor girl’s lack of formal education, something about playing God and molding a figure into our platonic ideals tends to bring out our amorous side. Perhaps recognizing how fraught with ethical and legal perils this innate propensity for romance is, a company called Yoodli has created an AI Henry Higgins that will ensure every future Eliza Doolittle will be able to improve her speaking skills without fear of harassment or paternalism.

The Seattle-based Yoodli, which we’ve covered and even tested out before, and which was co-founded by Varun Puri and Esha Joshi, who have past work experience at Google and Apple respectively. Their startup has been turning heads for some time now and a recent $6 million cash infusion from investors, bringing its total funding up to $7.1 million, indicates the powers that be see long-term potential for the software platform. It likely helped bolster confidence when the team, a spinout of the Allen Institute of Artificial Intelligence (AI2), nabbed the prestigious Young Entrepreneurs of the Year title at the 2022 GeekWire Awards.

The core Yoodli product works by analyzing a user’s uploaded sample speech video, looking for instances of unprofessionalism that could be tightened up.

Beyond checking for the usual filler word and pacing public speaking villains, the natural language processing that undergirds the platform also keeps a figurative eye out for noninclusive language, hedging words, awkward body language, and volume issues. It then displays the results of its critique for the user to directly take heed of or share with another, more corporeal coach. And much like other language-improvement and educational apps on the market, Yoodli utilizes the power of gamification with a streak counter.

Currently, Yoodli is just meant for MBA students and corporate ladder climbers, which is why only certain email accounts get access to its closed beta. It also explains the sort of hyper cautious and generic baseline it seems to be operating with. It can help you get over your fear of public speaking and teach you to talk clearly and competently like a character in a pharmaceutical commercial. But when it’s time to start planning your TED Talk, Yoodli might be a bit out of its depth. You’re going to have to figure out the charisma and playful rule-breaking elements that makes a speech truly great on you own.

In a sample analysis presented by the company, Yoodli processes a nearly 5-minute long commencement speech by Elon Musk and really takes the billionaire to task. Though Elon successfully suppresses his latent urges to pepper “epic meme speak” into the address to graduates, he nonetheless fumbles his way through the delivery, racking up a total of 20 “ums,” 18 “uhs,” and 34 words the AI deems “weak.” These and other deficiencies result in Yoodli awarding the second-richest man in the world a 2 out of 5 for confidence. But as harsh as this feedback may seem, Elon clearly needed it.

But more importantly, given the SpaceX purchaser’s inclination toward tech-infused romance, he and the AI seem to have kept things professional throughout the entire experience. The only instances of love I clocked were in comments for the video of the analysis left by humans expressing admiration for the product.