In a talk that brought his wife to tears, film and culture critic Roger Ebert, a self-described "motor-mouth," explained how losing his ability to speak has forced him to become more reliant on technological tools, both limiting and freeing, that have helped him to recover his voice on the Internet.
"I was forced to enter this virtual world in which a computer does some of my living for me," he said onstage at the TED conference. "I felt--and I still feel--a lot of distance from the human mainstream. I become uncomfortable when I'm separated from my laptop."
Ebert, who lost his voice following surgeries for thyroid cancer, addressed audiences through "Alex," a computer voice available on his MacBook computer, as well as his wife, Chaz, and friends, Dean Ornish and John Hunter, who read his remarks. The writer described how his experience has made him realize how losing one's voice, which is so intimately connected with a person's identity, can give birth to a new self.
He recounted his experiments using different computer voices, from Apple's Alex, which Ebert said was "the best one I've heard," to "Sir Lawrence," which gave Ebert a British accent, to "Roger 2.0," a synthetic voice reconstructed from Ebert's filmed conversations.
Though he is able to "speak" by typing phrases that a read from a computer, Ebert lamented that the process is frustratingly slow and prevents him from participating as actively as he would like in conversations.
On the Internet, however, he can express himself without such limitations: Ebert said email, blogging, Twitter, and Facebook have given him "a way to speak"
"Online everybody speaks at the same speed," he observed. "My ability to think and write have not been affected and on the web my real voice finds expression."
Ebert said he has struggled with his appearance, as well. Noting that people have treated him differently since his medical procedures--avoiding eye contact and speaking more loudly, for example--Ebert also highlighted the web as a place where he could engage in conversations and communication without being judged for the way he looks.
"I look like the Phantom of the Opera," Ebert said, though his wife immediately interjected, "No, you don't."
"It is human nature to look away from illness. We don't enjoy a reminder of our fragile mortality," Ebert said. "That's why writing on the Internet has become a life-saver to me."
Ebert concluded by proposing a metric by which the verisimilitude of a computer voice should be judged: "The ultimate test of a computer voice is whether it can tell a joke like Henny Youngman," he explained.
Ebert gave it a shot.
"A guy goes into a psychiatrist," he said. "The psychiatrist says, 'You're crazy.' The guy says, 'I want a second opinion.' The psychiatrist says, 'Alright, you're ugly.'"
The audience erupted into laughter.