Making A Computerized Voice A Little More Human

Speech scientist Rupal Patel customizes synthetic voices for people who can't speak. She tells Guy Raz of TED Radio Hour about helping people communicate in a voice that fits their personality.

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STEPEHN HAWKING: Here did we come from? Are we alone in the universe?

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

You may recognize this as the voice of Stephen Hawking, the physicist. It's actually the generic voice of men and women who use computers to speak for them. Synthetic speech though can be cold and impersonal, but a scientist in Boston wants to change that. Guy Raz of the TED RADIO HOUR has more.

GUY RAZ, BYLINE: Rupal Patel is a speech scientist and a professor at Northeastern University in Boston and she's figured out a way to create new voices, customized voices, for people who use synthetic speech; people who, for whatever reason - autism or cerebral palsy or stroke - cannot talk. Rupal explains from the Ted stage.

RUPAL PATEL: I'm going to play you now a sample of two people actually who have severe speech disorder.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE WITH SPEECH DISORDERS SPEAKING)

PATEL: You probably didn't understand what they said, but I hope that you heard their unique vocal identities. I wanted to harness these residual vocal abilities and build voices that could be customized for them. So we decided to do exactly that.

RAZ: With a girl named Samantha, and Samantha has a very rare speech disorder which makes it impossible for her to speak. But she can make sounds.

SAMANTHA: Ahhhhhh.

PATEL: And from that we can gather the pitch of her voice, the quality of her voice. Is it raspy, is it breathy? And we take what we can from those vocalizations and use them in the process where we generate a voice for her that sounds like her.

So how do you go about building this voice? Well, you have to find someone who's willing to be a surrogate. For Samantha, her surrogate came from somewhere in the Midwest, a stranger who gave her the gift of voice.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Things happen in pairs. I love to sleep, the sky is blue...

SIMON: The idea is to cover all the different combinations of the sounds that occur in the language. Samantha's voice is like a concentrated sample of red food dye, which we can infuse into the recordings of her surrogate to get a pink voice.

SAMANTHA: Ahhhhh.

PATEL: So now Samantha can say this:

SAMANTHA: This voice sounds like the real me. I helped make my new voice. I can't wait to use my new voice with my friends.

RAZ: That's incredible.

PATEL: When she heard her voice, there's this smile that spread across her face when she heard it for the first time. What I love about that is it's this sort of slow realization that this is who I am.

SIMON: And that's speech scientist Rupal Patel, speaking with Guy Raz at the TED RADIO HOUR. This is NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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