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Tech Talk -- Giving Computers A Voice

Tech Talk -- Giving Computers A VoiceSome of the most sophisticated computerized voice systems are being developed with the help of a recent Tufts graduate.

Boston [03.29.01] In an article published today, the New York Times said Christopher Kotelly "looks more like a theater director than a computer nerd."

The creative director at SpeechWorks -- which produces sophisticated voice recognition software for 250 companies including United Airlines, America Online and Federal Express -- said his job requires him to be a little of both.

According to the Times, the 1995 Tufts graduate's job "is to blend computer technology with research from psychology, sociology and linguistics and then throw in a few show business tricks to create the illusion that another human being -- not a machine -- is offering flight times, driving directions or shipping information."

Creating a computerized system with a "human touch" requires some intensive planning.

For example, the Times reported that "It takes 1,200 recordings of number combinations -- with variations of sequence and tone -- just to allow a computer to announce a 10-digit phone number,"

The Tufts graduate also incorporates tiny expressions into scripts that sound "off -the-cuff."

"The word 'oh' is great," he said in the Times article. "You can have a long statement and at the end say, 'Oh, if you ever need help, just ask for it.' It really brings the user's attention back."

The newspaper noted that Kotelly's team recorded almost 2,500 prompts and phrases to build a "natural, human-sounding computer" for a recent United Airlines project.

At the same time he's developing the technical pieces, Kotelly applies his artistic touch. He often advises clients to avoid using big-name actors, like James Earl Jones, for their voice prompts.

"It would probably be pretty difficult to speak to him through a long conversation because he would always sound very intense," he told the Times.

Kotelly said his parents raised him with a "dualism of art and science which helped steer him towards his current career."

According to the New York Times, that dedication continued in college.

"At Tufts University, he studied human factors in a curriculum that mixed psychology and engineering," reported the Times. "He was also very active in directing and composing music for amateur theater at Tufts."

His dual training appears to be working.

The New York Times reported that one of Kotelly's favorite reviews of his work "was an e-mail message from a United Airlines customer who said she found its system so helpful it made her want to invite its voice out to dinner."

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