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  • Roger Ebert: These are my words, but this is not my voice.

  • This is Alex, the best computer voice

  • I've been able to find,

  • which comes as standard equipment on every Macintosh.

  • For most of my life,

  • I never gave a second thought to my ability to speak.

  • It was like breathing.

  • In those days, I was living in a fool's paradise.

  • After surgeries for cancer

  • took away my ability to speak, eat or drink,

  • I was forced to enter this virtual world

  • in which a computer does some of my living for me.

  • For several days now,

  • we have enjoyed brilliant and articulate speakers here at TED.

  • I used to be able to talk like that.

  • Maybe I wasn't as smart,

  • but I was at least as talkative.

  • I want to devote my talk today

  • to the act of speaking itself,

  • and how the act of speaking or not speaking

  • is tied so indelibly to one's identity

  • as to force the birth of a new person

  • when it is taken away.

  • However, I've found that listening to a computer voice

  • for any great length of time

  • can be monotonous.

  • So I've decided to recruit some of my TED friends

  • to read my words aloud for me.

  • I will start with my wife, Chaz.

  • Chaz Ebert: It was Chaz who stood by my side

  • through three attempts to reconstruct my jaw

  • and restore my ability to speak.

  • Going into the first surgery

  • for a recurrence of salivary cancer

  • in 2006,

  • I expected to be out of the hospital

  • in time to return to my movie review show,

  • 'Ebert and Roeper at the Movies.'

  • I had pre-taped enough shows

  • to get me through six weeks of surgery

  • and recuperation.

  • The doctors took a fibula bone from my leg

  • and some tissue from my shoulder

  • to fashion into a new jaw.

  • My tongue, larynx and vocal cords

  • were still healthy and unaffected.

  • (Laughter)

  • (Laughter)

  • CE: I was optimistic,

  • and all was right with the world.

  • The first surgery was a great success.

  • I saw myself in the mirror

  • and I looked pretty good.

  • Two weeks later, I was ready to return home.

  • I was using my iPod

  • to play the Leonard Cohen song

  • 'I'm Your Man'

  • for my doctors and nurses.

  • Suddenly, I had an episode of catastrophic bleeding.

  • My carotid artery had ruptured.

  • Thank God I was still in my hospital room

  • and my doctors were right there.

  • Chaz told me

  • that if that song hadn't played for so long,

  • I might have already been in the car, on the way home,

  • and would have died right there and then.

  • So thank you, Leonard Cohen,

  • for saving my life.

  • (Applause)

  • There was a second surgery --

  • which held up for five or six days

  • and then it also fell apart.

  • And then a third attempt,

  • which also patched me back together pretty well,

  • until it failed.

  • A doctor from Brazil said

  • he had never seen anyone survive

  • a carotid artery rupture.

  • And before I left the hospital,

  • after a year of being hospitalized,

  • I had seven ruptures

  • of my carotid artery.

  • There was no particular day

  • when anyone told me

  • I would never speak again;

  • it just sort of became obvious.

  • Human speech

  • is an ingenious manipulation of our breath

  • within the sound chamber of our mouth

  • and respiratory system.

  • We need to be able to hold and manipulate that breath

  • in order to form sounds.

  • Therefore, the system

  • must be essentially airtight

  • in order to capture air.

  • Because I had lost my jaw,

  • I could no longer form a seal,

  • and therefore my tongue

  • and all of my other vocal equipment

  • was rendered powerless.

  • Dean Ornish: At first for a long time,

  • I wrote messages in notebooks.

  • Then I tried typing words on my laptop

  • and using its built in voice.

  • This was faster,

  • and nobody had to try to read my handwriting.

  • I tried out various computer voices that were available online,

  • and for several months I had a British accent,

  • which Chaz called Sir Lawrence."

  • (Laughter)

  • "It was the clearest I could find.

  • Then Apple released the Alex voice,

  • which was the best I'd heard.

  • It knew things like the difference

  • between an exclamation point and a question mark.

  • When it saw a period, it knew how to make a sentence

  • sound like it was ending instead of staying up in the air.

  • There are all sorts of html codes you can use

  • to control the timing and inflection of computer voices,

  • and I've experimented with them.

  • For me, they share a fundamental problem: they're too slow.

  • When I find myself in a conversational situation,

  • I need to type fast and to jump right in.

  • People don't have the time or the patience

  • to wait for me to fool around with the codes

  • for every word or phrase.

  • But what value do we place on the sound of our own voice?

  • How does that affect who you are as a person?

  • When people hear Alex speaking my words,

  • do they experience a disconnect?

  • Does that create a separation or a distance

  • from one person to the next?

  • How did I feel not being able to speak?

  • I felt, and I still feel,

  • a lot of distance from the human mainstream.

  • I've become uncomfortable when I'm separated from my laptop.

  • Even then, I'm aware that most people have little patience

  • for my speaking difficulties.

  • So Chaz suggested finding a company that could make a customized voice

  • using my TV show voice

  • from a period of 30 years.

  • At first I was against it.

  • I thought it would be creepy

  • to hear my own voice coming from a computer.

  • There was something comforting about a voice that was not my own.

  • But I decided then to just give it a try.

  • So we contacted a company in Scotland

  • that created personalized computer voices.

  • They'd never made one from previously-recorded materials.

  • All of their voices had been made by a speaker

  • recording original words in a control booth.

  • But they were willing to give it a try.

  • So I sent them many hours of recordings of my voice,

  • including several audio commentary tracks

  • that I'd made for movies on DVDs.

  • And it sounded like me, it really did.

  • There was a reason for that; it was me.

  • But it wasn't that simple.

  • The tapes from my TV show weren't very useful

  • because there were too many other kinds of audio involved --

  • movie soundtracks, for example, or Gene Siskel arguing with me --

  • (Laughter)

  • and my words often had a particular emphasis

  • that didn't fit into a sentence well enough.

  • I'll let you hear a sample of that voice.

  • These are a few of the comments I recorded for use

  • when Chaz and I appeared on the Oprah Winfrey program.

  • And here's the voice we call Roger Jr.

  • or Roger 2.0.

  • Roger 2.0: Oprah, I can't tell you how great it is

  • to be back on your show.

  • We have been talking for a long time,

  • and now here we are again.

  • This is the first version of my computer voice.

  • It still needs improvement,

  • but at least it sounds like me

  • and not like HAL 9000.

  • When I heard it the first time,

  • it sent chills down my spine.

  • When I type anything,

  • this voice will speak whatever I type.

  • When I read something, it will read in my voice.

  • I have typed these words in advance,

  • as I didn't think it would be thrilling

  • to sit here watching me typing.

  • The voice was created by a company in Scotland

  • named CereProc.

  • It makes me feel good

  • that many of the words you are hearing were first spoken

  • while I was commenting on "Casablanca"

  • and "Citizen Kane."

  • This is the first voice they've created for an individual.

  • There are several very good voices available for computers,

  • but they all sound like somebody else,

  • while this voice sounds like me.

  • I plan to use it on television, radio

  • and the Internet.

  • People who need a voice should know

  • that most computers already come with built-in speaking systems.

  • Many blind people use them

  • to read pages on the Web to themselves.

  • But I've got to say, in first grade,

  • they said I talked too much,

  • and now I still can.

  • (Laughter)

  • Roger Ebert: As you can hear, it sounds like me,

  • but the words jump up and down.

  • The flow isn't natural.

  • The good people in Scotland are still improving my voice,

  • and I'm optimistic about it.

  • But so far, the Apple Alex voice

  • is the best one I've heard.

  • I wrote a blog about it

  • and actually got a comment from the actor who played Alex.

  • He said he recorded many long hours in various intonations

  • to be used in the voice.

  • A very large sample is needed.

  • John Hunter: All my life I was a motormouth.

  • Now I have spoken my last words,

  • and I don't even remember for sure

  • what they were.

  • I feel like the hero of that Harlan Ellison story

  • titled "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream."

  • On Wednesday, David Christian explained to us

  • what a tiny instant the human race represents

  • in the time-span of the universe.

  • For almost all of its millions and billions of years,

  • there was no life on Earth at all.

  • For almost all the years of life on Earth,

  • there was no intelligent life.

  • Only after we learned to pass knowledge

  • from one generation to the next,

  • did civilization become possible.

  • In cosmological terms,

  • that was about 10 minutes ago.

  • Finally came mankind's most advanced and mysterious tool,

  • the computer.

  • That has mostly happened in my lifetime.

  • Some of the famous early computers

  • were being built in my hometown of Urbana,

  • the birthplace of HAL 9000.

  • When I heard the amazing talk

  • by Salman Khan on Wednesday,

  • about the Khan Academy website

  • that teaches hundreds of subjects to students all over the world,

  • I had a flashback.

  • It was about 1960.

  • As a local newspaper reporter still in high school,

  • I was sent over to the computer lab of the University of Illinois

  • to interview the creators

  • of something called PLATO.

  • The initials stood for Programmed Logic

  • for Automated Teaching Operations.

  • This was a computer-assisted instruction system,

  • which in those days ran on a computer named ILLIAC.

  • The programmers said it could assist students in their learning.

  • I doubt, on that day 50 years ago,

  • they even dreamed of what Salman Khan has accomplished.

  • But that's not the point.

  • The point is PLATO was only 50 years ago,

  • an instant in time.