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A few years ago, movie critic Roger Ebert was diagnosed with salivary (gland) cancer and underwent a series of surgeries that left him unable to speak.
For a while, he communicated by writing his thoughts in notebooks, but the former At the Movies co-host was determined to find a way to communicate orally.
He started using a computer program that allowed him to type his words into his Macintosh, when then read them aloud. At first, he used a voice he found online with a British accent but then settled on another one he calls “Alex.” At the recent TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference in Long Beach, Calif., Ebert demonstrated his new speaking abilities. Watch the video, above.
“These are my words, but this is not my voice,” Ebert told the 2,000-strong crowd in March. “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.”
Ebert said early on after his diagnosis, he still believed he would be able to talk again since his tongue, larynx and vocal cords were healthy and unaffected by the cancer.
Doctors also had begun working on fashioning a new jaw from a fibula bone in his leg and some tissue from his shoulder, but his carotid artery later ruptured and further reconstruction surgeries were unsuccessful.
“There was no particular day when anyone told me I would never speak again; it just sort of became obvious,” Ebert’s wife, Chaz, read from a script he had prepared.
While Ebert used the electronic Alex voice in his TED talk, a company in Scotland has been able to create a computer voice that mimics Ebert’s voice by processing many hours of him talking.
He also praises the Internet for helping him to continue sharing his thoughts with the rest of the world: “Because of the digital revolution, I have a voice, and I do not need to scream.”
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