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Thursday, 15 July 2010


A curious aspect of human psychology is that it seems impossible to design a machine voice that is acceptable. There is the dimension with hectoring at one end and unctuous at the other. Patronising is a good way along that, and no point on it seems right. And in an orthogonal dimension there's Stephen Hawking's deliberately retro Dalek at the left and the uncanny-valley at the right. That latter voice is almost too perfect, and yet - or and so - you still know that it is a robot.

Of course, anything with a voice immediately passes the gut-reaction Turing test: if it talks to you, it must also understand you when you swear at it. And you swear at it with more gusto and elaboration than you do at the mere screwdriver with which you have just stabbed your thumb. Sure, the screwdriver is out to get you too, just like every other inanimate object in the universe, but it doesn't simultaneously assault you and adopt airs above its station.

In a forlorn attempt to escape from this, some GPS manufacturers offer the option of celebrity voices, allowing you to have Arnold Schwarzenegger (or Stephen Hawking) telling you to turn left in three hundred meters.

Let's accept that that problem is insoluble and go - so to speak - down a different road: why not use the voice to convey more information? The GPS knows (we hope) where it is. So it could speak to you in the appropriate regional accent.

In Bristol it would talk to you in completely different tones to those it would use in Bermondsey. What's more, with blending techniques similar to those used to morph a computer graphic of one face into another, the accent could change smoothly from west-country to cockney as you drove East up the M4. This would be interesting, would help to preserve those accents against the onslaught of electronic cultural uniformity, and would (in Glasgow) be incomprehensible to all but people who knew their route anyway. You could even have a freeze button, so that, when you hit an accent you particularly liked, you could lock the machine to speak that way until you decided to release it from your spell.

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