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New ‘voice banking’ technology to help Charlie Bird and other MND sufferers

Written by corres2

In the RTÉ archives, there is almost four decades of Charlie Bird’s voice. Last year, his wife Claire took time off work to begin the long process of sifting through recordings, narrowing them down to three hours of clear, crisp audio. Charlie’s voice from the past will ensure his voice in the future.

Last October, the veteran broadcaster received a diagnosis of motor neuron disease (MND), the degenerative condition that is already eroding his ability to speak. By the time he sets out to climb Croagh Patrick for charity in April, he estimates, it could be gone altogether.

Existing replacement technology includes stock artificial voices: an Irish woman’s voice or a man with an English accent. For Bird, however, there is a potential alternative – after an RTÉ producer put him in touch with a couple of Irish tech innovators. They have developed on an artificial intelligence driven simulation that means Bird will be able to carry on talking as normal, even when he can no longer speak.

The technology is cutting edge despite appearing straightforward. A person records themselves talking and feeds clean audio into an algorithm that analyses and reproduces the content. When they type a sentence into a laptop or tablet, it comes out of a speaker a few seconds later, indistinguishable from the real thing.

The available technology has improved three-fold, rendering a cloned voice virtually indistinguishable from its human source

“It’s given me a whole new lease of life,” Bird says of what lies ahead. “I can now talk to my kids, my grandkids, with my own voice.” With his own voice now audibly deteriorating, he is clearly buoyed by the technology. His mission now is twofold – to promote its potential use among anyone with a condition that threatens their power of speech, and to encourage them to begin “banking” their words as soon as they can.

Based on existing software, the solution has been custom developed by Keith Davey, founder of Marino Software in Dublin and Trevor Vaugh, assistant professor at the Department of Design Innovation in NUI Maynooth. The pair had developed a similar voice substitute for an episode of RTÉ’s Big Life Fix three years ago. Today, the available technology has improved three-fold, rendering a cloned voice virtually indistinguishable from its human source.

As well as the option to type in sentences, Bird will place “beacons” in key areas that can detect his presence and automatically present stock phrases on his device – everything from wanting a coffee in the kitchen, to calling his dog Tiger for a walk, or even ordering a pint in his local (where one beacon is due to be positioned).

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