Not so very long ago, when a computer broke down, you could kick it and curse it and be assured it wouldn’t talk back. Those days are gone, however, thanks in part to Peter Duran, a blind mathematician who has developed a talking computer that could benefit the nation’s half a million blind (less than 10 percent of whom read Braille). Duran’s loquacious logicon has the capacity to utter all of the more than 650,000 words in the English language—using the same basic technology that is already making video games and fire alarms talk.
Duran, 39, was a postgraduate student in psycholinguistics (the psychology of language processing) at MIT when he assisted at the birth of the talking computer in 1970. “A group of us,” he recalls, “got a computer to say five words: ‘Hi there and [expletive deleted] you.’ We promptly went out and got drunk.” A year later Duran began developing a system that could read Braille aloud. In 1977 he founded ARTS (Audio Response Time Sharing) Computer Products in Boston with the help of his sighted wife, Marcia, the company’s chairwoman and “official worry-wart.” To date ARTS has sold 65 ORATORS (at $5,000 per) and 50 terminals (at $7,000 each) that display letters up to six inches high for the partially sighted.
Duran’s talking computer is a formidable accomplishment. “What we did was take recorded speech, program it and store it,” he explains. “Instead of recording whole words, we have recorded the composite parts of words, called phonemes.” After recording the 64 phonemes of English, Duran spent nearly five years writing a program that analyzed the relationship between phonemes and spelling so that the computer would pronounce the words correctly. “It took 800 rules of spelling,” says Duran, who must still devise a program for inflections to humanize the machine’s sci-fi monotone.
Partially blinded at birth by excess oxygen in his incubator, Duran lost his sight completely in a playground accident at age 10. He was the first blind student to attend Stamford (Conn.) High School and later studied mathematics at Hartford’s Trinity College and the University of Illinois. He met Marcia through a computer dating service in 1967. They live with son Brian, 5, in Cambridge, and Peter, who unwinds by reading math textbooks in Braille, asks: “Wouldn’t it be interesting to come up with a computer that sees as well as talks?”