If you were a little girl who couldn’t speak, would you want to sound like Stephen Hawking?
Hawking, the renowned physicist who has lost the ability to speak due to a neurological disorder called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, communicates by typing with cheek movements. The typed words are then voiced by a speech synthesizer, creating Hawking’s slow monotone that has become famous.
Devices similar to Hawking’s can help give voice to other people with speech impairments. Most modern devices sound more human-like than Hawking’s — think of Apple’s Siri or your GPS — but often the voice still doesn’t suit the person using it, says Canadian speech scientist Rupal Patel.
“There’s a tendency that clinicians will use an adult male voice, even for a young child.”
There are also such a limited number of voices available to most speech devices that several children in the same class may have the same voice.
Patel, an associate professor of speech language pathology and audiology at Northeastern University in Boston, is changing the lives of people who rely on devices to help them speak, by creating personalized voices for them.