Tell Me a Story, Robot

February 11, 2020

Make it a story of great distances and starlight…”– Robert Penn Warren from Tell Me A Story

If you’re reading this, then you’re a reader, That’s obvious, even tautological (nice word!). What I really mean is that you’re most likely a lover of books and good stories. But when someone says, “Tell Me A Story,” they are not talking about reading and writing. They’re talking about speaking and listening. Telling stories out loud is more primal. It runs in our DNA, and it was really the way stories were enjoyed and passed down up until the time of the Bible and other foundational texts like the Iliad and Gilgamesh. Even then, very few people could afford those painstakingly, handwritten manuscripts, so they were recited – enter the dawn of the audiobook. Read on and join me on a journey into Text-To-Speech(TTS) and the burgeoning tech effort to turn robots into storytellers.

Bedtime Stories

As parents, we have dutifully passed down the telling or reading of stories to our kids at bedtime. The tales delight and calm them, planting the seeds of pleasant dreams. Maybe this explains the popularity of podcasts and audiobooks. We have a relatively new platform for the dissemination of the spoken word with the surprise and delight of stories well told.

I grew up addicted to the spoken story with Mystery Theater on the radio. My parents’ generation listened to shows like The Shadow and Our Miss Brooks. And almost everyone has heard the famous Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds. As an adult, my love of audiobooks dates back to Books on Tape that started up in the 1970s – BOT is still around. On my long work commutes, great stories whisked me away to distant places and triggered my imagination, shrinking my perceived commute time to nothing.

Audiobooks, Podcasts – Give Me More

Now that I am a writer, of course I would make my novels into audiobooks – NOT SO DEAD audio appeared in early 2018 and NOT SO GONE earlier this year. That journey began with interviewing ten narrators/actors to do the fourteen different characters. Since by now my wife, Amy, and I listened to hundreds of audiobooks in the years since Books on Tape, we had a good ear for what makes a great narrator. You don’t want an overly dramatic narrator – that would take away from the story – but you do want an actor who knows when to speed up with the action and emphasize specific words. And you don’t need a man who can sound perfectly female when he is performing a woman’s part – only slight changes in pitch and cadence will do the trick. The narrator is really a midwife who helps readers give birth to their own personal experiences of the story.

Charles Levin Author

Text-To-Speech – Is It Any Good?

With this in mind and being kind of a techy myself, I was intrigued when invited to beta test a voice synthesizing program from the well-funded tech startup WellSaid. Text-to-speech (TTS) is a rapidly-growing field of machine learning with many players from start-ups to the likes of Google, vying for the lion’s share of the projected $3 billion TTS market. Could TTS replace human narrators at much less cost? Would the quality be there?

WellSaid’s YouTube demo was impressive. So as a beta tester, I had the opportunity to try it myself. I inputted my text, selected from one of three digital narrators, and a human-like voice read it aloud. Here are the first few sentences of the first chapter of NOT SO DEAD done by the Voice Synthesizer – compare them to my human narrator,  HERE. What do you think (please leave a comment below)? I also tried Google’s TTS which boasts of 100 voices to choose from in more than 20 languages. You can try your own Google TTS experiment for free here.  My opinion: for a straight reading of the news or maybe even for advertising voice-overs, it’s fine. The words are pronounced correctly, but TTS has a way to go for storytelling. Human audiobook narrators are safe for now. Storytelling requires a great deal of nuance in the tone and emphasis to deliver an exceptional audio experience. And for the foreseeable future, that appears to be way beyond the current software wizardry.

In fact, it took decades beyond landing a man on the moon to reach 99% accuracy with Speech-To-Text (the flip-side of TTS) aka turning your voice dictation into the written word. The futurists had no idea that the task was more complex than a moonshot, but Speech-To-Text eventually got there. Take this a step further and maybe we writers and creators need to look over our shoulders as Artificial Intelligence can actually write and create fiction and do it well. So well, that when Open AI created a very powerful content creation program, it scared them and they shut it down. Similarly, who thought computers could beat the world’s top chess champion or the top Go master and they did. What does all this mean for our future? I’m not sure, but I will be watching and listening and still writing with anticipation. In the meantime, I don’t believe anything will replace Mom or Dad reading you Good Night Moon before bed anytime soon.

Happy reading! Or should I say listening…

— END —

What Are Quantum Computers And Why Care About This Sensational Technology?

July 24, 2017

What is a Quantum Computer?

I am writing about Quantum Computing now, because I see the beginning of something big that will impact all our lives soon. I had the same premonition about PCs when I got my first Osborne Computer in 1981 and was on the Internet before there was ever a web browser or a Yahoo or Google.  So let’s explore what Quantum Computers are, what they can do and what they could mean for you and me.

What Are Quantum Computers And Why Care About This Sensational Technology? D-Wave 2000, Charles Levin Thriller Author, Quantum Computing

First, Quantum Computers are here now and can solve problems and anticipate outcomes up to a thousand times faster than traditional computers. Here’s the techy definition, but keep reading:

“quan·tum com·put·er, noun
plural noun: quantum computers
1. a computer that makes use of the quantum states of subatomic particles to store information.”

But what the heck does this mean? Bits vs. Qubits. The simple explanation is that Quantum Computers use a whole different paradigm for achieving results at lightning speed. On the one hand, the fundamental building blocks  of traditional computer code are 1’s and 0’s – BITS. So their state is either ON – a 1 or OFF – a 0. Consequently, traditional computers solve problems in a sequential way: if A then B then C . . . So their speed is based on how fast they can do these sequential calculations. There are things like parallel processing that allow these machines to walk and chew gum at the same time, but it’s still walking.

On the other hand Quantum Computers (“QCs”) can see 1’s and 0’s at the same time! QUBITS. So instead of solving a problem sequentially, QCs can simultaneously attack a problem from multiple different directions. You can get way deeper into how it works, but this gives you the basics.

What Are Quantum Computers And Why Care About This Sensational Technology? Bits vs, Qubits - Charles Levin Thriller Author

Why Do We Care About Quantum Speed?

Quantum Speed means we can solve really complex problems fast enough to matter. For example, take the example of the emerging technology of self-driving cars. Volkswagon and D-Wave Systems, one of the first commercially available QC systems, successfully tested optimizing the routes of 10,000 taxis in Beijing simultaneously to reduce traffic congestion. Unless you can do this fast in realtime, the information becomes useless. If you’re in a taxi, it needs to know to take the next left before it reaches the intersection and traditional computers, even supercomputers, may not be fast enough to do that.

This kind of QC computing power can handle other kinds of very complex data-intensive problems, like predicting weather patterns, catching terrorist needles in a global haystack, cracking encryption, predicting financial trends, space exploration, genetic research and more.

What Does The Quantum Computing Future Look Like?

Besides attacking and solving the big data, complex problems mentioned, QC gets really interesting when combined with Artificial Intelligence (“AI”). I mean how does a traditional computer, IBM’s Deep Blue, beat the world champion chess player at chess, or Google’s AlphaGo, beat the world champion at the game of GO? The programmer who wrote the code for these machines is not a better chess or GO player. The only way these AI machines exceed the most skilled humans is by Learning. And by learning, just like the Beijing taxis, the machine must recognize patterns, optimize, and return results fast.
Finally, remember when computers, that were less powerful then your cellphone, filled large air-conditioned rooms? Certainly one of the obstacles with QC is that the machines rely on superconductivity. That means to move electrons at super high-speeds, the QC is housed inside a refrigerator set to less than one degree above Absolute Zero (-273 degrees Fahrenheit!). But who knows? Maybe we’ll be carrying Quantum Computers in our pockets one day too. That be years off, but why, in the very near future, couldn’t your current cellphone connect to a Quantum Computer? You send it the problem, it crunches the numbers at quantum speed, and sends you the answer instantly. Cool, eh?
For more on this subject, as well as future posts on biological computers, quantum biology and Deep Learning, join our mailing list and you’ll be the first to know when these new posts are available.
Until then, my self-driving car is waiting . . . .
For more articles and video, here are a few interesting links:
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Why Voice A.I. Is Taking Off Now

December 20, 2016

What was the best selling Amazon item on Black Friday? It wasn’t holiday bells, Nintendo, UGGs or Fitbits. It was the Echo Dot AI Assistant for $40. They sold so many that they are now back ordered into January. So what’s going on here? After all, we have Siri or ‘OK, Google’ on our phones. What’s the big deal?


Echo Dot

I have an Echo Dot on my kitchen counter and it is tranformative. I think the big difference is that it is hands-free, convenient and often funny. It synchs to your music service, calendar and internet enabled appliances, and has over 5000 ‘skills’ available. Skills are like Apps. So while my hands are sticky with cookie dough, I can just say, ‘Alexa, play Miles Davis’ or ‘What’s the weather forecast?’ or ‘Play NPR’ or ‘Set a Timer for 3 minutes’ and ‘Set a 2nd Timer for 10 minutes’ or ‘CNN, what’s in the news?’ or ‘Turn up the heat to 72 degrees in the living room’ or ‘Buy some more toilet paper’ For fun, I can say ‘Play Jeopardy’ or ‘Tell me a Joke’ or ‘Beam me up, Scotty’ with fun and sometimes surprising results. I don’t have to pull out my phone, key the password, and open the app. It has also been a big boon for the disabled, living alone, to operate appliances, thermostats and other home appliances by voice. For $40 bucks!

So in this article, I’d like to help you see why this is more than a toy, why it may be the next big platform and what its significant implications might be for the near future. If we have time, we might compare competing technology and risks of this evolving technology.


Google Home

You all may remember Hal from 2001 or the Star Trek Computer. Both interacted conversationally with Dave and Captain Kirk. For example, “Alexa, ask NASA Mars for a Curiosity Rover update.” That’s something Dave or Captain Kirk might say, right? The Echo will answer with the latest update. Right now Echo has the capability to feed back facts and information as well as command devices to perform the functions they were built for. The Hal ability it seems to lack is to think and converse, but that may be coming soon or evolving as we speak.

An interesting early attempt at a natural language interface called ‘Eliza’ was introduced by Joseph Wezenbaum in 1966. Eliza interacts like a psychotherapist, mostly asking seemingly intelligent questions based on your previous responses. People have been known to get hooked and converse with Eliza for for several hours. Think of Scarlett Johannsen playing the AI voice in the movie, ‘Her’ (great movie if you haven’t seen it). Eliza is now on the Echo Dot. If you enable the ‘Therapist’ skill, you can ask things like “Alexa, tell Eliza that I want to talk about my father” and a lengthy conversation with you and Alexa may ensue.

Well it’s not quite there yet, but it is evolving. The ultimate yet-to-be-developed Alexa skill may be ‘Friend’ that engages you and keeps you company. Imagine. 27% of the US population or close to 100 million people live alone in our country- just ask Alexa. Could Alexa become a companion to comfort and engage them?

Meanwhile, what is another smart motive for Amazon to make this device so cheap and compelling? You guessed it. You can order stuff using the Echo. Now at first you might say, why would I do that? I can’t be sure I’d be getting what I want. I’m not looking at a screen. So I can’t be sure. Well Amazon has handled this pretty well and remember when people were reluctant to buy things online having similar concerns? You learn and adapt and boom, there’s an explosion of new business. Alexa could be the next big eCommerce platform. Maybe.

So if you stuck it out and read to this point, what should you do now? First, I’d encourage you to buy one of the Amazon Echo devices (there are 3 versions) or Google Home and try it out. Then think of ways that you or your business might leverage this technology as an opportunity or just to improve your life. Here at Pathfinder we’re exploring ways to create new Alexa skills to help businesses and push the AI envelope. If your intrigued, let’s have a conversation.

I think I’ll save the comparison of Alexa to Siri to Google Home for next time, but here are a few useful links if you want to explore further:
If you want to Buy one.
Alexa Skills Marketplace with over 5000 to chose from.
If you want to build your own skill

Happy holidays and an Intelligent New Year. . .Charlie


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