Computer Voices

In one of my app libraries, I have a collection of articles. One day I noticed a pop-up option to listen. “Short on time?” the pop-up advertises, choose the listen option. Sure enough, in the toolbar row on the bottom, there’s a small icon of a headset.

Normally I prefer to read these articles. They can be quite dense, sometimes requiring me to reread a passage to make sense of it. Also, there are lots of diagrams, models, and other graphs illustrating the text. Today I decided to try out the listen option while I was doing something else in the kitchen. After all, I’m a long-time podcast listener. Recently I discovered the magic of audio books. I felt excited about having these lengthy articles read to me.

About 2 minutes in, I realized this was not a good option. Unlike podcasts, who are hosted by real people, and audiobooks, read by real people and often actors, the article featured a simulated, computer voice. It was horrid. The voice had a synthetic, metallic twang to it, making it obvious that a computer was “reading” it. Everything was monotone, including all the descriptions for the many diagrams and other points. I listened for a few more minutes, trying to get into it. However, I realized I wasn’t paying attention because it sounded so boring. Admittedly, a non-fiction article might not be the most exciting content to listen to, but the computer-voice made it extra dry and lifeless.

As I shut off the audio version, in favor of something more aurally pleasing, I couldn’t help feeling disappointed. There are so many great options available for audio readings. I’m sure many even sound like real people with tone, inflection, cadence, enunciation, emphasis, basically anything to make the text sound alive and real.

I realize the rise of AI, and other technological advances, raise real concerns about audio recordings. For example, AI can analyze an actor or author reading his/her own work, then replicate it for something new, without paying royalties or having permission. There are real ethics issues here. But at the same time, there must be some kind of balance between providing a reasonable sounding audio version to your customers, that doesn’t infringe on the work of artists and authors, or raise ethics concerns.

Until that library service figures out a better audio option, I’ll stick with reading those articles for now.

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