Lecture to Explore Future Uses of Synthetic Voices

Could the vocal presence on your bank's answering machine save endangered languages?

Release Date: September 4, 2007 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The way in which the electronic voices that answer our phones, help us make plane reservations and take our fast-food orders might be put to new, extremely useful and fascinating uses in the future will be the subject of a presentation on Sept. 26 at the University at Buffalo.

Marc Böhlen, associate professor in the UB Department of Media Study and a 2006-07 fellow of the UB Humanities Institute, will present his fellowship project, "Make Language," at 5:15 p.m. in the Screening Room in the Center for the Arts on UB's North (Amherst) Campus.

The free, public presentation will be sponsored by the UB Humanities Institute, which promotes innovative cross-disciplinary research, teaching, and community programs in the humanities.

An artist-engineer, Böhlen teaches and publishes in the areas of digital arts and robotics. He currently is visiting professor at the Artificial Intelligence Lab, University of Zürich and visiting professor in the Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design at the University of Toronto. He holds three master's degrees from major institutions and is an international figure in his field.

"Make Language," which represents Bohlen's ongoing attempt to diversify machine culture, is an exploration of intriguing new uses for what he calls "the infinitely patient synthetic characters who make our plane reservations, guide us through the options offered by telephone answering systems, offer computer support, give us stock quotes and take our fast food orders."

"The synthetic language systems 'they' use replicate features of human speech to the extent that they sound more and more like we do," he says, "and permit these synthetic characters to understand and respond to us on our terms." But, he says, these characters could perform extremely useful functions beyond the mundane activities to which they are currently assigned.

To demonstrate their potential uses, in "Make Language" Böhlen introduces us to synthetic-voice English-speaking characters Amy, German-accented Klara and Spanish-accented Maria and assigns them new language tasks, with provocative and witty results.

They demonstrate their synthetic bad accents and foul language, conduct synthetic hissy fits and demonstrate synthetic patience, awe and kitsch. Böhlen proposes, however, that that they and their artificial friends might someday talk us to sleep as a lover might or help us keep exotic human dialects from becoming obsolete.

"Maybe they will archive endangered phonemes in elaborate databases or invent new figures of speech particular to being machines," he says, "but first, they will have to prove their mettle/metal."

Explore "Make Language" and other Böhlen IT art projects, including "The Universal Whistling Machine," at http://www.realtechsupport.org/new_works/ml.html.

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