19:30
TED2011

Roger Ebert: Remaking my voice

Filmed:

When film critic Roger Ebert lost his lower jaw to cancer, he lost the ability to eat and speak. But he did not lose his voice. In a moving talk from TED2011, Ebert and his wife, Chaz, with friends Dean Ornish and John Hunter, come together to tell his remarkable story.

- Film critic and blogger
After losing the power to speak, legendary film critic Roger Ebert went on to write about creativity, race, politics and culture -- and film, just as brilliantly as ever. Full bio

Roger Ebert: These are my words, but this is not my voice.
00:15
This is Alex, the best computer voice
00:18
I've been able to find,
00:20
which comes as standard equipment on every Macintosh.
00:22
For most of my life,
00:25
I never gave a second thought to my ability to speak.
00:27
It was like breathing.
00:30
In those days, I was living in a fool's paradise.
00:32
After surgeries for cancer
00:35
took away my ability to speak, eat or drink,
00:37
I was forced to enter this virtual world
00:40
in which a computer does some of my living for me.
00:42
For several days now,
00:45
we have enjoyed brilliant and articulate speakers here at TED.
00:47
I used to be able to talk like that.
00:50
Maybe I wasn't as smart,
00:52
but I was at least as talkative.
00:54
I want to devote my talk today
00:56
to the act of speaking itself,
00:58
and how the act of speaking or not speaking
01:00
is tied so indelibly to one's identity
01:02
as to force the birth of a new person
01:04
when it is taken away.
01:06
However, I've found that listening to a computer voice
01:08
for any great length of time
01:10
can be monotonous.
01:12
So I've decided to recruit some of my TED friends
01:14
to read my words aloud for me.
01:17
I will start with my wife, Chaz.
01:19
Chaz Ebert: It was Chaz who stood by my side
01:25
through three attempts to reconstruct my jaw
01:27
and restore my ability to speak.
01:31
Going into the first surgery
01:34
for a recurrence of salivary cancer
01:36
in 2006,
01:38
I expected to be out of the hospital
01:40
in time to return to my movie review show,
01:43
'Ebert and Roeper at the Movies.'
01:45
I had pre-taped enough shows
01:48
to get me through six weeks of surgery
01:50
and recuperation.
01:53
The doctors took a fibula bone from my leg
01:55
and some tissue from my shoulder
01:58
to fashion into a new jaw.
02:00
My tongue, larynx and vocal cords
02:04
were still healthy and unaffected.
02:07
(Laughter)
02:09
(Laughter)
02:12
CE: I was optimistic,
02:23
and all was right with the world.
02:25
The first surgery was a great success.
02:27
I saw myself in the mirror
02:30
and I looked pretty good.
02:32
Two weeks later, I was ready to return home.
02:35
I was using my iPod
02:38
to play the Leonard Cohen song
02:40
'I'm Your Man'
02:42
for my doctors and nurses.
02:44
Suddenly, I had an episode of catastrophic bleeding.
02:47
My carotid artery had ruptured.
02:51
Thank God I was still in my hospital room
02:54
and my doctors were right there.
02:57
Chaz told me
03:01
that if that song hadn't played for so long,
03:03
I might have already been in the car, on the way home,
03:05
and would have died right there and then.
03:08
So thank you, Leonard Cohen,
03:11
for saving my life.
03:13
(Applause)
03:16
There was a second surgery --
03:20
which held up for five or six days
03:22
and then it also fell apart.
03:24
And then a third attempt,
03:27
which also patched me back together pretty well,
03:29
until it failed.
03:32
A doctor from Brazil said
03:36
he had never seen anyone survive
03:38
a carotid artery rupture.
03:41
And before I left the hospital,
03:44
after a year of being hospitalized,
03:47
I had seven ruptures
03:50
of my carotid artery.
03:52
There was no particular day
03:54
when anyone told me
03:56
I would never speak again;
03:58
it just sort of became obvious.
04:00
Human speech
04:03
is an ingenious manipulation of our breath
04:05
within the sound chamber of our mouth
04:08
and respiratory system.
04:11
We need to be able to hold and manipulate that breath
04:14
in order to form sounds.
04:17
Therefore, the system
04:20
must be essentially airtight
04:22
in order to capture air.
04:25
Because I had lost my jaw,
04:28
I could no longer form a seal,
04:30
and therefore my tongue
04:32
and all of my other vocal equipment
04:34
was rendered powerless.
04:37
Dean Ornish: At first for a long time,
04:41
I wrote messages in notebooks.
04:43
Then I tried typing words on my laptop
04:45
and using its built in voice.
04:47
This was faster,
04:49
and nobody had to try to read my handwriting.
04:51
I tried out various computer voices that were available online,
04:53
and for several months I had a British accent,
04:56
which Chaz called Sir Lawrence."
04:58
(Laughter)
05:00
"It was the clearest I could find.
05:02
Then Apple released the Alex voice,
05:04
which was the best I'd heard.
05:06
It knew things like the difference
05:08
between an exclamation point and a question mark.
05:10
When it saw a period, it knew how to make a sentence
05:12
sound like it was ending instead of staying up in the air.
05:14
There are all sorts of html codes you can use
05:18
to control the timing and inflection of computer voices,
05:20
and I've experimented with them.
05:23
For me, they share a fundamental problem: they're too slow.
05:25
When I find myself in a conversational situation,
05:28
I need to type fast and to jump right in.
05:31
People don't have the time or the patience
05:35
to wait for me to fool around with the codes
05:37
for every word or phrase.
05:39
But what value do we place on the sound of our own voice?
05:41
How does that affect who you are as a person?
05:44
When people hear Alex speaking my words,
05:47
do they experience a disconnect?
05:49
Does that create a separation or a distance
05:51
from one person to the next?
05:53
How did I feel not being able to speak?
05:56
I felt, and I still feel,
05:58
a lot of distance from the human mainstream.
06:00
I've become uncomfortable when I'm separated from my laptop.
06:02
Even then, I'm aware that most people have little patience
06:06
for my speaking difficulties.
06:08
So Chaz suggested finding a company that could make a customized voice
06:11
using my TV show voice
06:14
from a period of 30 years.
06:16
At first I was against it.
06:18
I thought it would be creepy
06:20
to hear my own voice coming from a computer.
06:22
There was something comforting about a voice that was not my own.
06:24
But I decided then to just give it a try.
06:27
So we contacted a company in Scotland
06:29
that created personalized computer voices.
06:31
They'd never made one from previously-recorded materials.
06:34
All of their voices had been made by a speaker
06:37
recording original words in a control booth.
06:39
But they were willing to give it a try.
06:41
So I sent them many hours of recordings of my voice,
06:43
including several audio commentary tracks
06:46
that I'd made for movies on DVDs.
06:48
And it sounded like me, it really did.
06:51
There was a reason for that; it was me.
06:53
But it wasn't that simple.
06:56
The tapes from my TV show weren't very useful
06:58
because there were too many other kinds of audio involved --
07:01
movie soundtracks, for example, or Gene Siskel arguing with me --
07:04
(Laughter)
07:07
and my words often had a particular emphasis
07:09
that didn't fit into a sentence well enough.
07:11
I'll let you hear a sample of that voice.
07:14
These are a few of the comments I recorded for use
07:16
when Chaz and I appeared on the Oprah Winfrey program.
07:19
And here's the voice we call Roger Jr.
07:22
or Roger 2.0.
07:24
Roger 2.0: Oprah, I can't tell you how great it is
07:27
to be back on your show.
07:29
We have been talking for a long time,
07:32
and now here we are again.
07:35
This is the first version of my computer voice.
07:37
It still needs improvement,
07:40
but at least it sounds like me
07:42
and not like HAL 9000.
07:44
When I heard it the first time,
07:47
it sent chills down my spine.
07:49
When I type anything,
07:52
this voice will speak whatever I type.
07:54
When I read something, it will read in my voice.
07:56
I have typed these words in advance,
07:59
as I didn't think it would be thrilling
08:02
to sit here watching me typing.
08:04
The voice was created by a company in Scotland
08:06
named CereProc.
08:09
It makes me feel good
08:11
that many of the words you are hearing were first spoken
08:13
while I was commenting on "Casablanca"
08:16
and "Citizen Kane."
08:19
This is the first voice they've created for an individual.
08:22
There are several very good voices available for computers,
08:25
but they all sound like somebody else,
08:28
while this voice sounds like me.
08:31
I plan to use it on television, radio
08:34
and the Internet.
08:37
People who need a voice should know
08:39
that most computers already come with built-in speaking systems.
08:42
Many blind people use them
08:45
to read pages on the Web to themselves.
08:47
But I've got to say, in first grade,
08:50
they said I talked too much,
08:52
and now I still can.
08:54
(Laughter)
08:56
Roger Ebert: As you can hear, it sounds like me,
08:59
but the words jump up and down.
09:02
The flow isn't natural.
09:04
The good people in Scotland are still improving my voice,
09:06
and I'm optimistic about it.
09:09
But so far, the Apple Alex voice
09:11
is the best one I've heard.
09:13
I wrote a blog about it
09:15
and actually got a comment from the actor who played Alex.
09:17
He said he recorded many long hours in various intonations
09:20
to be used in the voice.
09:23
A very large sample is needed.
09:25
John Hunter: All my life I was a motormouth.
09:28
Now I have spoken my last words,
09:31
and I don't even remember for sure
09:34
what they were.
09:36
I feel like the hero of that Harlan Ellison story
09:38
titled "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream."
09:41
On Wednesday, David Christian explained to us
09:45
what a tiny instant the human race represents
09:48
in the time-span of the universe.
09:51
For almost all of its millions and billions of years,
09:53
there was no life on Earth at all.
09:56
For almost all the years of life on Earth,
09:59
there was no intelligent life.
10:02
Only after we learned to pass knowledge
10:04
from one generation to the next,
10:06
did civilization become possible.
10:08
In cosmological terms,
10:10
that was about 10 minutes ago.
10:12
Finally came mankind's most advanced and mysterious tool,
10:15
the computer.
10:19
That has mostly happened in my lifetime.
10:21
Some of the famous early computers
10:24
were being built in my hometown of Urbana,
10:26
the birthplace of HAL 9000.
10:29
When I heard the amazing talk
10:32
by Salman Khan on Wednesday,
10:34
about the Khan Academy website
10:36
that teaches hundreds of subjects to students all over the world,
10:38
I had a flashback.
10:41
It was about 1960.
10:43
As a local newspaper reporter still in high school,
10:46
I was sent over to the computer lab of the University of Illinois
10:49
to interview the creators
10:52
of something called PLATO.
10:54
The initials stood for Programmed Logic
10:56
for Automated Teaching Operations.
10:58
This was a computer-assisted instruction system,
11:02
which in those days ran on a computer named ILLIAC.
11:05
The programmers said it could assist students in their learning.
11:08
I doubt, on that day 50 years ago,
11:12
they even dreamed of what Salman Khan has accomplished.
11:15
But that's not the point.
11:19
The point is PLATO was only 50 years ago,
11:21
an instant in time.
11:24
It continued to evolve and operated in one form or another
11:26
on more and more sophisticated computers,
11:29
until only five years ago.
11:32
I have learned from Wikipedia
11:34
that, starting with that humble beginning,
11:36
PLATO established forums, message boards,
11:39
online testing,
11:42
email, chat rooms,
11:44
picture languages, instant messaging,
11:46
remote screen sharing
11:49
and multiple-player games.
11:51
Since the first Web browser was also developed in Urbana,
11:54
it appears that my hometown
11:57
in downstate Illinois
11:59
was the birthplace
12:01
of much of the virtual, online universe we occupy today.
12:03
But I'm not here from the Chamber of Commerce.
12:06
(Laughter)
12:08
I'm here as a man who wants to communicate.
12:10
All of this has happened in my lifetime.
12:13
I started writing on a computer back in the 1970s
12:16
when one of the first Atech systems was installed
12:19
at the Chicago Sun-Times.
12:22
I was in line at Radio Shack
12:25
to buy one of the first Model 100's.
12:27
And when I told the people in the press room at the Academy Awards
12:30
that they'd better install some phone lines for Internet connections,
12:33
they didn't know what I was talking about.
12:36
When I bought my first desktop,
12:39
it was a DEC Rainbow.
12:41
Does anybody remember that?"
12:43
(Applause)
12:45
"The Sun Times sent me to the Cannes Film Festival
12:48
with a portable computer the size of a suitcase
12:50
named the Porteram Telebubble.
12:54
I joined CompuServe
12:56
when it had fewer numbers
12:58
than I currently have followers on Twitter.
13:00
(Laughter)
13:02
CE: All of this has happened
13:06
in the blink of an eye.
13:08
It is unimaginable
13:10
what will happen next.
13:12
It makes me incredibly fortunate
13:14
to live at this moment in history.
13:17
Indeed, I am lucky to live in history at all,
13:19
because without intelligence and memory
13:22
there is no history.
13:25
For billions of years,
13:27
the universe evolved
13:29
completely without notice.
13:31
Now we live in the age of the Internet,
13:33
which seems to be creating a form of global consciousness.
13:36
And because of it,
13:39
I can communicate
13:41
as well as I ever could.
13:43
We are born into a box
13:45
of time and space.
13:47
We use words and communication
13:50
to break out of it
13:52
and to reach out to others.
13:54
For me, the Internet began
13:57
as a useful tool
13:59
and now has become something I rely on
14:01
for my actual daily existence.
14:04
I cannot speak;
14:07
I can only type so fast.
14:09
Computer voices
14:12
are sometimes not very sophisticated,
14:14
but with my computer,
14:17
I can communicate more widely
14:19
than ever before.
14:21
I feel as if my blog,
14:23
my email, Twitter and Facebook
14:26
have given me a substitute
14:29
for everyday conversation.
14:31
They aren't an improvement,
14:34
but they're the best I can do.
14:36
They give me a way to speak.
14:38
Not everybody has the patience
14:41
of my wife, Chaz.
14:44
But online,
14:48
everybody speaks at the same speed.
14:49
This whole adventure
14:54
has been a learning experience.
14:56
Every time there was a surgery that failed,
14:58
I was left with a little less flesh and bone.
15:01
Now I have no jaw left at all.
15:04
While harvesting tissue from both my shoulders,
15:07
the surgeries left me with back pain
15:10
and reduced my ability to walk easily.
15:12
Ironic that my legs are fine,
15:16
and it's my shoulders that slow up my walk.
15:18
When you see me today,
15:21
I look like the Phantom of the Opera.
15:23
But no you don't.
15:25
(Laughter)
15:27
(Applause)
15:29
It is human nature to look at someone like me
15:39
and assume I have lost some of my marbles.
15:42
People --
15:46
(Applause)
15:57
People talk loudly --
16:03
I'm so sorry.
16:05
Excuse me.
16:07
(Applause)
16:09
People talk loudly and slowly to me.
16:13
Sometimes they assume I am deaf.
16:17
There are people who don't want to make eye contact.
16:20
Believe me, he didn't mean this as --
16:24
anyway, let me just read it.
16:26
(Laughter)
16:28
You should never let your wife read something like this.
16:33
(Laughter)
16:36
It is human nature
16:40
to look away from illness.
16:42
We don't enjoy a reminder
16:45
of our own fragile mortality.
16:47
That's why writing on the Internet
16:50
has become a lifesaver for me.
16:52
My ability to think and write
16:54
have not been affected.
16:57
And on the Web, my real voice finds expression.
16:59
I have also met many other disabled people
17:02
who communicate this way.
17:05
One of my Twitter friends
17:08
can type only with his toes.
17:10
One of the funniest blogs on the Web
17:12
is written by a friend of mine
17:14
named Smartass Cripple.
17:16
(Laughter)
17:18
Google him and he will make you laugh.
17:20
All of these people are saying, in one way or another,
17:23
that what you see
17:25
is not all you get.
17:27
So I have not come here to complain.
17:29
I have much to make me happy and relieved.
17:32
I seem, for the time being,
17:35
to be cancer-free.
17:37
I am writing as well as ever.
17:39
I am productive.
17:41
If I were in this condition at any point
17:43
before a few cosmological instants ago,
17:46
I would be as isolated as a hermit.
17:49
I would be trapped inside my head.
17:52
Because of the rush of human knowledge,
17:54
because of the digital revolution,
17:57
I have a voice,
17:59
and I do not need to scream.
18:01
RE: Wait. I have one more thing to add.
18:05
A guy goes into a psychiatrist.
18:10
The psychiatrist says, "You're crazy."
18:12
The guy says, "I want a second opinion."
18:15
The psychiatrist says, "All right, you're ugly."
18:18
(Laughter)
18:22
You all know the test for artificial intelligence -- the Turing test.
18:25
A human judge has a conversation
18:29
with a human and a computer.
18:31
If the judge can't tell the machine apart from the human,
18:33
the machine has passed the test.
18:36
I now propose a test for computer voices -- the Ebert test.
18:39
If a computer voice can successfully tell a joke
18:43
and do the timing and delivery as well as Henny Youngman,
18:46
then that's the voice I want.
18:49
(Applause)
18:51

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About the Speaker:

Roger Ebert - Film critic and blogger
After losing the power to speak, legendary film critic Roger Ebert went on to write about creativity, race, politics and culture -- and film, just as brilliantly as ever.

Why you should listen

By any measure, Roger Ebert was a legend. The first person to win a Pulitzer for film criticism, as film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, he was best known for his decades-long reign as the co-host of Sneak Previews, a TV show with fellow Chicago critic Gene Siskel. For 23 years and three title changes (finally settling on Siskel and Ebert and the Movies) the two critics offered smart, short-form film criticism that guided America's moviegoing. After Gene Siskel died in 1999, Ebert kept on with critic Richard Roeper. (And he was also the co-screenwriter of the Russ Meyer cult classic Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, a fact that astounded more than a few young film students.)

In 2006, Ebert began treatment for thyroid cancer. He told the story of his many surgeries and setbacks in an immensely-worth-reading Esquire story in 2010. Enduring procedure after procedure, he eventually lost the lower part of his jaw -- and with it his ability to eat and speak. Turning to his blog and to Twitter, he found a new voice for his film work and his sparkling thoughts on ... just about everything. He tried his hand as an Amazon affiliate, became a finalist in the New Yorker caption contest, and started a controversy or two. In 2013 Ebert passed away from cancer at the age of 70.

More profile about the speaker
Roger Ebert | Speaker | TED.com