With the help of his wife, two colleagues and the Alex-equipped MacBook that he uses to generate his computerized voice, famed film critic Roger Ebert delivered the final talk at the TED conference on Friday in Long Beach, California.
Prefacing his remarks with a scene from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Ebert opened by telling the audience that he “became operational on June 18, 1942. And like HAL 9000, I also speak with a computerized voice” — the same remarkably realistic computerized voice he shared with the world on Oprah last year.
From there, Ebert and friends took the audience on his inspiring journey, from the near-death experience in 2006 that left him without a voice to his search for the technology that creates Ebert-sounding text-to-speech to his present-day prolific use of social media for sharing his commentary on both movies and life with the world.
Ebert credited a life-long love affair with technology for giving him the inspiration to both find his “voice” and continue his career on the Internet. “I joined Compuserve when it had fewer users than I have followers on Twitter,” he joked.
“For me, the Internet began as a useful tool and now has become something I rely on for my actual daily existence… if this had happened before, I’d be isolated as a hermit; I’d be trapped inside my head. Because of the digital revolution, I have a voice, and I do not have to scream.”
That’s not to say Ebert’s existence is not without significant physical and social struggle. In one of the more moving moments of his talk, Ebert’s wife Chaz choked up while reading his words aloud, saying, “People talk loudly and slowly to me… sometimes they assume I am deaf. There are people that don’t want to make eye contact. It is human nature to look away from illness; we don’t enjoy a reminder of our own fragile mortality… that’s why writing on the Internet has been a life saver for me.”
Meanwhile, the technology that enables Ebert to “speak” continues to see improvements — for example, adding more realistic inflection for question marks and exclamation points. In a test of that, which Ebert called the “Ebert test” for computerized voices, the critic closed by telling the audience a joke, saying, “If the computer can successfully tell a joke as well as Henry Youngman, then that’s the voice I want.”
Judging by the laughter, tears and standing ovation from the crowd that followed as Ebert left the stage, it would seem that voice may have already arrived.
Photo Credit: Robert Leslie / TED