The talking computer

The talking computer in a home banking system developed by British Telecom went on trial at the beginning of 1988. The customer telephones a special number, answered by the computer, and gives his name, personal code number and a password. The computer makes a 'voiceprint' of the speech patterns, which plays the same role as a signature, preventing anyone else from dialling the number and using the account.

When the computer has accepted the call and identified the caller, it will then recognise a number of spoken commands and respond to them in English. For example, the computer can give details of the last transaction, supply the account's balance, pay bills, and confirm orders for cheque books and statements.

Computer speech synthesisers have been produced - at a high cost - to provide a voice for some children in the United States who have no voice of their own. The synthesiser is programmed with a realistic voice - possibly based on the voice of the child's brother or sister.

A synthesiser for a child as young as four would have an appropriately small vocabulary and the child selects the words he wants to say by moving a joystick to appropriate pictures.

An older child or adult type’s statements on a keyboard, and the statements are then spoken by the synthesiser. For someone who is paralysed, a sensor attached to the eyebrow can act as a computer joystick. Another technique is to use an electronic sensor that detects movements of the eye itself to enter the commands.

The potential for talking computers is great, and work is going on to develop fast systems with large vocabularies. Talking computers are already used for translation work; information services, such as stock market trading figures; airline reservations; and security to prevent access to buildings and to computer files.

In years to come, portable voice synthesisers will probably allow an English-speaking person to ask simple questions that will be translated in, say, Japanese on a screen. To reply, a Japanese person would use a similar machine programmed from Japanese to English.


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