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Annotated captions of Roger Ebert: Remaking my voice in English

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

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This is Alex, the best computer voice

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I've been able to find,

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which comes as standard equipment on every Macintosh.

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For most of my life,

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

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It was like breathing.

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

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After surgeries for cancer

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took away my ability to speak, eat or drink,

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I was forced to enter this virtual world

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

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For several days now,

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we have enjoyed brilliant and articulate speakers here at TED.

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I used to be able to talk like that.

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Maybe I wasn't as smart,

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but I was at least as talkative.

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I want to devote my talk today

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to the act of speaking itself,

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and how the act of speaking or not speaking

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is tied so indelibly to one's identity

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as to force the birth of a new person

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when it is taken away.

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

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for any great length of time

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can be monotonous.

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01:02

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

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to read my words aloud for me.

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I will start with my wife, Chaz.

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Chaz Ebert: It was Chaz who stood by my side

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through three attempts to reconstruct my jaw

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and restore my ability to speak.

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Going into the first surgery

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for a recurrence of salivary cancer

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in 2006,

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I expected to be out of the hospital

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in time to return to my movie review show,

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01:33

'Ebert and Roeper at the Movies.'

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I had pre-taped enough shows

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to get me through six weeks of surgery

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and recuperation.

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01:43

The doctors took a fibula bone from my leg

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01:45

and some tissue from my shoulder

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to fashion into a new jaw.

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My tongue, larynx and vocal cords

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were still healthy and unaffected.

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(Laughter)

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(Laughter)

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CE: I was optimistic,

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and all was right with the world.

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The first surgery was a great success.

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I saw myself in the mirror

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and I looked pretty good.

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Two weeks later, I was ready to return home.

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I was using my iPod

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to play the Leonard Cohen song

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'I'm Your Man'

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for my doctors and nurses.

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Suddenly, I had an episode of catastrophic bleeding.

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My carotid artery had ruptured.

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Thank God I was still in my hospital room

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and my doctors were right there.

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Chaz told me

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

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

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and would have died right there and then.

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So thank you, Leonard Cohen,

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for saving my life.

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(Applause)

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There was a second surgery --

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which held up for five or six days

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and then it also fell apart.

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And then a third attempt,

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which also patched me back together pretty well,

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until it failed.

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A doctor from Brazil said

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he had never seen anyone survive

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a carotid artery rupture.

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And before I left the hospital,

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after a year of being hospitalized,

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I had seven ruptures

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of my carotid artery.

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There was no particular day

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when anyone told me

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I would never speak again;

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it just sort of became obvious.

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Human speech

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is an ingenious manipulation of our breath

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within the sound chamber of our mouth

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and respiratory system.

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We need to be able to hold and manipulate that breath

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in order to form sounds.

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Therefore, the system

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must be essentially airtight

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in order to capture air.

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Because I had lost my jaw,

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I could no longer form a seal,

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and therefore my tongue

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and all of my other vocal equipment

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was rendered powerless.

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Dean Ornish: At first for a long time,

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I wrote messages in notebooks.

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Then I tried typing words on my laptop

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and using its built in voice.

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This was faster,

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and nobody had to try to read my handwriting.

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I tried out various computer voices that were available online,

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and for several months I had a British accent,

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which Chaz called Sir Lawrence."

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(Laughter)

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"It was the clearest I could find.

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Then Apple released the Alex voice,

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which was the best I'd heard.

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It knew things like the difference

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between an exclamation point and a question mark.

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

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

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There are all sorts of html codes you can use

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to control the timing and inflection of computer voices,

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and I've experimented with them.

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

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When I find myself in a conversational situation,

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I need to type fast and to jump right in.

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People don't have the time or the patience

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to wait for me to fool around with the codes

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for every word or phrase.

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

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How does that affect who you are as a person?

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When people hear Alex speaking my words,

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do they experience a disconnect?

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Does that create a separation or a distance

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from one person to the next?

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How did I feel not being able to speak?

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I felt, and I still feel,

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a lot of distance from the human mainstream.

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

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

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for my speaking difficulties.

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

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using my TV show voice

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from a period of 30 years.

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At first I was against it.

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I thought it would be creepy

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to hear my own voice coming from a computer.

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

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But I decided then to just give it a try.

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So we contacted a company in Scotland

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that created personalized computer voices.

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

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All of their voices had been made by a speaker

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recording original words in a control booth.

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But they were willing to give it a try.

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

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including several audio commentary tracks

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that I'd made for movies on DVDs.

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And it sounded like me, it really did.

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There was a reason for that; it was me.

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But it wasn't that simple.

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The tapes from my TV show weren't very useful

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

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

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(Laughter)

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and my words often had a particular emphasis

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that didn't fit into a sentence well enough.

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

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These are a few of the comments I recorded for use

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when Chaz and I appeared on the Oprah Winfrey program.

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And here's the voice we call Roger Jr.

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or Roger 2.0.

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

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to be back on your show.

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We have been talking for a long time,

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and now here we are again.

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This is the first version of my computer voice.

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It still needs improvement,

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but at least it sounds like me

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and not like HAL 9000.

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When I heard it the first time,

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it sent chills down my spine.

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When I type anything,

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this voice will speak whatever I type.

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

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I have typed these words in advance,

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as I didn't think it would be thrilling

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to sit here watching me typing.

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The voice was created by a company in Scotland

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named CereProc.

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It makes me feel good

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that many of the words you are hearing were first spoken

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while I was commenting on "Casablanca"

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and "Citizen Kane."

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

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There are several very good voices available for computers,

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but they all sound like somebody else,

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while this voice sounds like me.

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I plan to use it on television, radio

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and the Internet.

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People who need a voice should know

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

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Many blind people use them

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to read pages on the Web to themselves.

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

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they said I talked too much,

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and now I still can.

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(Laughter)

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

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but the words jump up and down.

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The flow isn't natural.

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The good people in Scotland are still improving my voice,

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and I'm optimistic about it.

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But so far, the Apple Alex voice

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is the best one I've heard.

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I wrote a blog about it

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

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He said he recorded many long hours in various intonations

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to be used in the voice.

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A very large sample is needed.

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09:16

John Hunter: All my life I was a motormouth.

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Now I have spoken my last words,

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and I don't even remember for sure

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what they were.

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I feel like the hero of that Harlan Ellison story

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

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On Wednesday, David Christian explained to us

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what a tiny instant the human race represents

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in the time-span of the universe.

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For almost all of its millions and billions of years,

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there was no life on Earth at all.

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For almost all the years of life on Earth,

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there was no intelligent life.

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Only after we learned to pass knowledge

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from one generation to the next,

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did civilization become possible.

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In cosmological terms,

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that was about 10 minutes ago.

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Finally came mankind's most advanced and mysterious tool,

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the computer.

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That has mostly happened in my lifetime.

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Some of the famous early computers

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were being built in my hometown of Urbana,

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the birthplace of HAL 9000.

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When I heard the amazing talk

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by Salman Khan on Wednesday,

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about the Khan Academy website

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

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I had a flashback.

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It was about 1960.

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As a local newspaper reporter still in high school,

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

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to interview the creators

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of something called PLATO.

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The initials stood for Programmed Logic

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for Automated Teaching Operations.

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This was a computer-assisted instruction system,

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which in those days ran on a computer named ILLIAC.

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The programmers said it could assist students in their learning.

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I doubt, on that day 50 years ago,

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they even dreamed of what Salman Khan has accomplished.

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But that's not the point.

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The point is PLATO was only 50 years ago,

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an instant in time.

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It continued to evolve and operated in one form or another

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on more and more sophisticated computers,

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until only five years ago.

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I have learned from Wikipedia

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that, starting with that humble beginning,

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PLATO established forums, message boards,

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online testing,

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email, chat rooms,

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picture languages, instant messaging,

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remote screen sharing

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and multiple-player games.

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Since the first Web browser was also developed in Urbana,

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it appears that my hometown

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in downstate Illinois

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was the birthplace

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of much of the virtual, online universe we occupy today.

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But I'm not here from the Chamber of Commerce.

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(Laughter)

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I'm here as a man who wants to communicate.

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All of this has happened in my lifetime.

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I started writing on a computer back in the 1970s

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when one of the first Atech systems was installed

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at the Chicago Sun-Times.

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I was in line at Radio Shack

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to buy one of the first Model 100's.

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And when I told the people in the press room at the Academy Awards

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that they'd better install some phone lines for Internet connections,

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they didn't know what I was talking about.

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When I bought my first desktop,

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it was a DEC Rainbow.

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12:30

Does anybody remember that?"

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12:33

(Applause)

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"The Sun Times sent me to the Cannes Film Festival

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with a portable computer the size of a suitcase

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named the Porteram Telebubble.

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I joined CompuServe

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when it had fewer numbers

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than I currently have followers on Twitter.

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(Laughter)

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CE: All of this has happened

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in the blink of an eye.

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It is unimaginable

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what will happen next.

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13:02

It makes me incredibly fortunate

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to live at this moment in history.

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Indeed, I am lucky to live in history at all,

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because without intelligence and memory

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there is no history.

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For billions of years,

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the universe evolved

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completely without notice.

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Now we live in the age of the Internet,

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which seems to be creating a form of global consciousness.

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And because of it,

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I can communicate

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as well as I ever could.

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We are born into a box

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of time and space.

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We use words and communication

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to break out of it

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and to reach out to others.

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For me, the Internet began

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as a useful tool

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and now has become something I rely on

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for my actual daily existence.

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I cannot speak;

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I can only type so fast.

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Computer voices

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are sometimes not very sophisticated,

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but with my computer,

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I can communicate more widely

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than ever before.

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I feel as if my blog,

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my email, Twitter and Facebook

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have given me a substitute

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for everyday conversation.

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They aren't an improvement,

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but they're the best I can do.

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They give me a way to speak.

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14:29

Not everybody has the patience

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of my wife, Chaz.

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But online,

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everybody speaks at the same speed.

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14:41

This whole adventure

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has been a learning experience.

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14:46

Every time there was a surgery that failed,

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14:49

I was left with a little less flesh and bone.

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14:52

Now I have no jaw left at all.

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14:55

While harvesting tissue from both my shoulders,

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14:57

the surgeries left me with back pain

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15:01

and reduced my ability to walk easily.

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Ironic that my legs are fine,

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15:06

and it's my shoulders that slow up my walk.

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15:08

When you see me today,

tedtalks 15:08
15:10

I look like the Phantom of the Opera.

tedtalks 15:10
15:12

But no you don't.

tedtalks 15:12
15:14

(Laughter)

tedtalks 15:14
15:22

(Applause)

tedtalks 15:24
15:27

It is human nature to look at someone like me

tedtalks 15:27
15:31

and assume I have lost some of my marbles.

tedtalks 15:31
15:33

People --

tedtalks 15:42
15:48

(Applause)

tedtalks 15:48
15:50

People talk loudly --

tedtalks 15:50
15:52

I'm so sorry.

tedtalks 15:52
15:54

Excuse me.

tedtalks 15:54
15:58

(Applause)

tedtalks 15:58
16:02

People talk loudly and slowly to me.

tedtalks 16:02
16:05

Sometimes they assume I am deaf.

tedtalks 16:05
16:08

There are people who don't want to make eye contact.

tedtalks 16:09
16:11

Believe me, he didn't mean this as --

tedtalks 16:11
16:13

anyway, let me just read it.

tedtalks 16:13
16:16

(Laughter)

tedtalks 16:18
16:21

You should never let your wife read something like this.

tedtalks 16:21
16:25

(Laughter)

tedtalks 16:25
16:27

It is human nature

tedtalks 16:27
16:30

to look away from illness.

tedtalks 16:30
16:32

We don't enjoy a reminder

tedtalks 16:32
16:35

of our own fragile mortality.

tedtalks 16:35
16:37

That's why writing on the Internet

tedtalks 16:37
16:39

has become a lifesaver for me.

tedtalks 16:39
16:42

My ability to think and write

tedtalks 16:42
16:44

have not been affected.

tedtalks 16:44
16:47

And on the Web, my real voice finds expression.

tedtalks 16:47
16:50

I have also met many other disabled people

tedtalks 16:50
16:53

who communicate this way.

tedtalks 16:53
16:55

One of my Twitter friends

tedtalks 16:55
16:57

can type only with his toes.

tedtalks 16:57
16:59

One of the funniest blogs on the Web

tedtalks 16:59
17:01

is written by a friend of mine

tedtalks 17:01
17:03

named Smartass Cripple.

tedtalks 17:03
17:05

(Laughter)

tedtalks 17:05
17:08

Google him and he will make you laugh.

tedtalks 17:08
17:10

All of these people are saying, in one way or another,

tedtalks 17:10
17:12

that what you see

tedtalks 17:12
17:14

is not all you get.

tedtalks 17:14
17:17

So I have not come here to complain.

tedtalks 17:17
17:20

I have much to make me happy and relieved.

tedtalks 17:20
17:22

I seem, for the time being,

tedtalks 17:22
17:24

to be cancer-free.

tedtalks 17:24
17:26

I am writing as well as ever.

tedtalks 17:26
17:28

I am productive.

tedtalks 17:28
17:31

If I were in this condition at any point

tedtalks 17:31
17:34

before a few cosmological instants ago,

tedtalks 17:34
17:37

I would be as isolated as a hermit.

tedtalks 17:37
17:39

I would be trapped inside my head.

tedtalks 17:39
17:42

Because of the rush of human knowledge,

tedtalks 17:42
17:44

because of the digital revolution,

tedtalks 17:44
17:46

I have a voice,

tedtalks 17:46
17:49

and I do not need to scream.

tedtalks 17:50
17:54

RE: Wait. I have one more thing to add.

tedtalks 17:55
17:57

A guy goes into a psychiatrist.

tedtalks 17:57
18:00

The psychiatrist says, "You're crazy."

tedtalks 18:00
18:03

The guy says, "I want a second opinion."

tedtalks 18:03
18:07

The psychiatrist says, "All right, you're ugly."

tedtalks 18:07
18:10

(Laughter)

tedtalks 18:10
18:14

You all know the test for artificial intelligence -- the Turing test.

tedtalks 18:14
18:16

A human judge has a conversation

tedtalks 18:16
18:18

with a human and a computer.

tedtalks 18:18
18:21

If the judge can't tell the machine apart from the human,

tedtalks 18:21
18:24

the machine has passed the test.

tedtalks 18:24
18:28

I now propose a test for computer voices -- the Ebert test.

tedtalks 18:28
18:31

If a computer voice can successfully tell a joke

tedtalks 18:31
18:34

and do the timing and delivery as well as Henny Youngman,

tedtalks 18:34
18:36

then that's the voice I want.

tedtalks 18:36
19:08

(Applause)