Roger Ebert in His Own Words

I am a bit behind in posting news, as I had some necessary hand surgery and could not type for the last couple of weeks! This, for a writer, is nearly deadly. Just like not talking if you’re a movie reviewer is nearly deadly. Roger Ebert would know.

Ebert hasn’t been able to talk for more than two years. The very vocal film critic has been a victim of cancer, and through a series of surgeries that saved his life, he lost his ability to speak with his own voice. Over the last two years, he has used various means to “talk” to people, including toting a laptop and speakers with him and using an electronic voice to translate the typed text into speech for a listener. Anyone that has heard such an electronic voice knows that such things are relatively lifeless, don’t portray emotion, and can be boring to listen to. And while text-to-voice technology has come a long way, and that boring electronic voice has become more life-like over the years, it still isn’t human. Wouldn’t it be great if text-to-speech or text-to-audio engines could sound more like the person who is doing the talking?

For most of the world, this is an out-of-reach proposition. But for Roger Ebert, whose personality and never-say-never attitude since his bout with cancer has been nothing but inspiring, the use of his own voice for text-to-speech was not out of the question. Cereproc, a leader in text-to-speech development at the moment, went out of their way to recreate Ebert’s voice, using recordings of his own voice collected from his years in the media. They were able to create a specialized dictionary of his own words for him, so that his text-to-speech presentations sound very much like the real thing. While not perfect, and still sometimes lacking the emotion we expect from human speech, the result is still incredible to listen to.

As I get the use of my right hand back over the next few days, I cannot help but think about how technology has taken us so far, how computers, sometimes considered a toy, has become other people’s voices, other people’s contact with the world, other people’s only (or primary) way of being able to communicate with others. The future should bring even more incredible advances that can be used not only by the disabled, but by everyday persons doing everyday things. Roger Ebert’s cancer has probably blessed a whole lot more people than he (or even we) will ever know.