Computers that can hear and talk back to you

Talking to a computer - asking it questions and having it answer you back is not science-fiction fantasy: it is already happening. The user-friendly computer which can 'hear' your voice, interpret your words, and answer in spoken language is used in telephone systems and home banking, for example.

The first step in making a computer speak is to store common speech sounds - called phonemes - in the computer memory. They are stored digitally as combinations of 0 and l, and each combination represents a different sound. The computer is programmed to assemble the sounds into words or sentences, then uses a microphone to 'tell' you what you want to know.

Computers which 'hear' have been programmed with a similar system to enable a receiver to recognise the phonemes. Most computers can interpret only certain words, spoken in a prescribed order, or by a previously introduced voice, but advanced systems can now recognise and respond to any human voice, and some even understand more than one language. However, a computer cannot think, so does not hold a real conversation. A computer-generated voice does not sound like a human voice. Talking computers sound jerky and mechanical because they pronounce each speech sound in an identical, neutral way, without the varying stresses of the human voice. Researchers in the Netherlands have tried to solve this problem by combining the speech sounds in smaller chunks, and assembling them to produce more human-sounding words.

Most computer-speaking systems are used with telephones. In the USA, telephone companies use a computerised voice if they need to tell callers that the number they have dialled have been changed. The voice then speaks the new number. This computer cannot `hear' a question, and is merely responding to the incorrectly dialled number.

Research in the USA and France aims at creating a computerised telephone directory which will respond to your request with the correct number. Such a system would also be useful as a talking timetable for trains, buses and airlines.

 


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