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

There are nearly four decades of Charlie Bird’s voice in the RT archives. Last year, his wife, Claire, took time off from work to begin the long process of sifting through the 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), a degenerative condition that is already impairing the ability to speak. By the time he turns out to pounce on Krogh Patrick for charity in April, he estimates, it could totally go.

Existing replacement technology includes stock artificial voices: an Irish female voice or a male with an English accent. For Bird, however, there is a possible alternative – after an RTE manufacturer put him in touch with a couple of Irish tech innovators. They have developed on an artificial intelligence powered simulation which means the bird will be able to talk normally, even when it cannot speak.

Despite the straightforward look, the technology is state-of-the-art. A person records themselves talking and feeds the clean audio into an algorithm that analyzes and reproduces the content. When they type a sentence into a laptop or tablet, it comes out of the speaker a few seconds later, indistinguishable from the real thing.

Available technology has improved threefold, a cloned voice almost indistinguishable from its human source

“It’s given me a new lease on life,” Bird says of what’s next. “Now I can talk to my kids, my grandchildren, with my voice.” With her own voice now audible deteriorating, she is clearly enthused by the technology. Their mission is now twofold – to promote its potential use among anyone who jeopardizes their ability to speak, and to encourage them to start “banking” their words as soon as possible.

Based on existing software, the solution has been developed by Keith Davey, founder of Marino Software in Dublin and Trevor Waugh, an assistant professor in the Department of Design Innovation at NUI Menuth. The pair developed a similar voice option for an episode of RTE’s Big Life Fix three years ago. Today, available technology has improved threefold, a cloned voice almost indistinguishable from its human source.

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