Mediamatic Magazine Vol. 6#4 Dirk Van Weelden 1 Jan 1992

Machine Voices

Talking to chairs, calling a sweater, swearing at the garlic press. A bit of the animism which is part of a child's interaction with its environment survives in each of us. But it still takes a bit of getting used to when objects talk back to us.


Machine Voices -

The object learned to speak just as we did, step by step: beginning with sounds (the Laughing Bag, those toddlers' boxes that moo or baa when inverted), then dolls whose vocabulary was limited to the one, correct word:// Mama.// Pinball and soft drink machines soon succeeded in blurting short sentences and slogans. They entertained us with a song during the game or transaction and thanked us as we left.

Nowadays, the newest generation of supermarket computers reads bar codes and lustily proclaims the price of the articles. When the cashier has punched in the amount of money received, the cash register proudly announces the amount of change, thanks the customer (behind the cashier's back) and wishes us a good day.

Call a mail order company with the catalog open in your lap, and you're guided to successful completion of an order by the metallic voice of a computer (which calls itself Otto, or Hanky), which then thanks you sincerely, of course.

In a word, the use of simulated speech appeared and is still most prevalent in the shopping realm. But what is happening, exactly? Those who hold progress dear might say that simulated speech relieves human beings of robotic tasks. People used to have to mechanically repeat the same phrases over and over again at ticket windows and cash registers: good morning, may I help you,your change, that will be..., please, good-bye, have a nice day. This is the area which is rapidly being taken over by machine voices.

But can it indeed be called progress? Complaints, driving a bargain, asking about the guarantee, annoying and flirting with personnel, all of these things are part of the charm of life as a consumer. And we are being deprived of it by the automation of the act of purchase. The endlessly, stupidly quacking voices' only merit is that they confront us with an acoustic mirror. Those ridiculous, squeaking voices, blurting the same, superfluous nonsense as the store personnel. A half-witted imitation of exactly what mattered the least to begin with.

Being spoken to by a machine is a strange experience. One's instinctive reaction is fright, which should undergo an immediate, natural transformation into the impulse to shut the machine up with brute violence. But most people become shy and giggle. They are clearly embarrassed by intimate contact with a machine. A machine voice violates the assumption that only beings with an intellect can produce intelligible sounds.

Because of this strange prejudice, we find it hard to believe that someone who has trouble speaking is mentally sound. Children, stutterers and spastics suffer because of it. And that same prejudice causes our superstitious response when a quasi-human voice comes from a machine: we feel that we're dealing with a thinking being. This confusion causes us to overestimate the speech-sounds which are produced by machines and to experience them as language. In this way, cola dispensers, cash registers and dashboards can intimidate us.

Machine voices are advancing rapidly. Consumer electronics seems to be moving in the direction of machines with speech chips, which can also be operated with the voice, by means of well-articulated commands and questions.

In human intercourse, speech is a first stage, after which intimacy increases and touch advances the communication. With machines, in this general, erotic regard, it's the other way around. In operating machines, the first stage is the touching of their parts, handles and knobs. But addressing them with the spoken word is a deed with a greater erotic content.

Speaking Pet

In order to get used to a talking machine, one should have one as a pet. A machine which has no particular function, and cannot actually be operated, but which responds to the events in its environment by producing spoken language. Like a cat, which rubs its head against you and meows when it wants to eat or go outside, or a dog which whines when you kick it.

This speaking creature already exists. Its name is Adelbrecht. Martin Spanjaard, its spiritual father, has been perfecting it for almost ten years now. It began in 1982, with his efforts to construct a ball which would roll of its own accord, notice when it collided with something, and reverse itself. But plans for Adelbrecht developed, and as technology progressed, it became possible to endow the ball with an Adelbrecht possessing greater and greater powers. Adelbrecht now has senses, with which he not only determines whether or not he collides, but also whether he is being picked up, stroked, and whether and how much sound and light are present. While rolling and colliding, Adelbrecht takes in this ever-changing combination of information. In addition, Spanjaard has provided Adelbrecht with a mood (or 'lust') which is a function of his experiences.

Adelbrecht actually does nothing more than roll about, combining all of his impressions and reacting to them. He does this not only by altering his behaviour (if he feels no lust, he hardly rolls at all, at a maximum of lust, he rolls as one possessed back and forth), but by speaking, as well.

With the aid of the Institute for Research on Perception in Amsterdam, Spanjaard equipped Adelbrecht with a voice. A speech simulator developed by IRP and an 8000 processor were the raw material. Instead of phonemes (of which the Dutch language has about 180), this system works with diphones, also known as sound transitions (Dutch possesses something like 1700). The result is a great deal less mechanical. Stresses and intonations peculiar to Dutch can be adjusted, making it even less robot-like.

Adelbrecht has a sizable memory in which Spanjaard can store reactions, questions, cries, pleas and epithets. The program which he developed causes Adelbrecht to speak out about the specific situation in which he finds himself, depending on his mood. If no one has touched him since he became active, he will call for help when he gets stuck, but if he has already been stroked (Nice, he says) or picked up (Is it you? he asks), then he will refrain from these responses and immediately address his owner when he gets stuck: Are you still there? Can't you see that I'm stuck?

Obviously, he mumbles and shouts completely different things when rolling across the turf of a football field, than he does when colliding his way through the legs of people and chairs at a party in someone's living room.

Because of the intricate relationship between his physical situation and the mood with which he's struggling, he disposes of a rich and astonishing arsenal of verbal reactions. While Adelbrecht can address us to flatter, curse or beg, he does not understand our reaction. But, if we play with him, he will notice it and respond.

Adelbrecht is a ball which is searching for something, but seems to have forgotten what. In the meantime, he comments upon everything which he experiences. Spanjaard doesn't need to adhere to the psychologically probable in his choice of sentences. He can endow Adelbrecht with poetic talent (a memory full of sentences by Craig Raine) or an irascible character, which breaks from the refined appearance it keeps up and begins ranting only in a certain situation.

Who can say that in 20 years, we'll not all have an Adelbrecht instead of a cat? For the moment, Adelbrecht is unique and appears as a performance artist under the direction of his father, Martin Spanjaard.

translation JIM BOEKBINDER