Beyond Atari

by John J Smith



Issue 15

May/Jun 85

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John J. Smith, winner of last year's Readers Poll begins a new series with this issue looking at the wider aspects of computing.


User-friendly is a term being thrown around at the moment to describe how easy computers are to use but that is not how I interpret this phrase. Imagine crawling out of your bed in the morning and hearing a warm affectionate voice say "Good morning. Did you sleep well? The kettle has boiled and the tea is ready. I await your instructions". Later when you sit down at the keyboard instead of the word READY a warm male or female voice (your choice) says "What are we going to do today? Before we start I must tell you that the office called to say that machine number 27 is on the blink again. I have informed the repair man and he should be there just after lunch". The computer would then stay quiet whilst you got on with your writing or programming unless you asked it a question and wanted a verbal reply. Now that's what I call User-friendly!

You may think that the above example is far fetched but speech synthesis has come a long way over the past 5 years and although they still have some way to go there are now devices available which are quite intelligible provided they are programmed properly.

In 1978 I did some manual searching of library material for information on speech synthesis and speech recognition (although I have never been involved in the hardware for this purpose) and PAGE 6 readers may be interested to know that the earliest reference I could find was dated 1952 in the Journal of Acoustic Society of America Vol.24. However I understand that North Staffordshire Polytechnic did a study in 1973 and that references have been found on speech synthesis dating back to 1779(!) but these must have been mechanical and are therefore hardly relevant today. Nevertheless it is interesting that even with today's technology it is still not perfected. It seemed at the time I was looking into this, and is probably still true today, that more material was available on speech synthesis - that is to get a computer to speak - than on speech recognition - getting a computer to understand.

One interesting item was the work being carried out by Sperry Gyroscope Inc. in the U.S.A .They had apparently built a device called SCEPTRON which stands for Spectral Comparative Pattern Recogniser. Other companies were working on this project as well for the U.S. Navy and surprisingly the device was used to try and understand the 'speech' of Dolphins. An article can be found on this in Radio Electronics magazine (U.S.A) April 1964.
RCA and others were working on a mechanical interface to change speech into a typewritten message in 1962 and Japan were working on a transistorised multilingual speech to typewriter message system also in 1962. In 1963 the reverse - written messages to speech - was being worked on.

People have studied and experimented for many years to make machines that talk but it is only with the advent of the computer and in particular the large scale integrated circuit that speech synthesis has been available to the home user in a reasonable size package and at reasonable cost.

Texas Instruments took the rest of the industry by surprise when it brought out a toy called Speak & Spell and although it appeared to be an expensive toy at the time (was it really 7 years ago?) it was a miracle of modern technology. Several people who were already into computing as a hobby bought one only to discover that Texas would not provide any information on the chips nor would they sell them on their own. Personally I think that was a big mistake as, given the ingenuity of some hobbyists, I feel that this subject could have advanced even quicker.


For many years I have been saying that one day it would be possible to dial up anything that can be read, watched or listened to. If you can now download a piece of software or a news item (via Teletext) it will not be long before you can get a print of that book you wanted or that pop tune or the latest film, all by dialling a phone number and downloading it. Now I am not talking about recording the data on disk or tape or any other mechanical device which must be subject to wear and tear but direct into computer memory. Before long, with the cost per bit of memory coming down as they pack more and more into each chip, I think we shall see incredible amounts of non-volatile memory being used in our computers and peripherals. We may gasp at hearing that the latest micro has half a megabyte of RAM but as we get used to more RAM remember that Operating Systems get more sophisticated with 68k Operating Systems now becoming commonplace. If we want instant recall of what we want when we want it then tens of thousands of megabytes are going to be needed and probably several dedicated 32-bit chips processing in parallel. Looking even further ahead a data highway could be built into new houses controlling all our needs from straight information retrieval to adjusting the central heating to automatically adjusting the light coming through the window with some kind of electro-luminescent material that would compensate for lack of natural light and maintain a constant room light - with a manual override of course! Main services such as gas, water, electricity, phone and data charge would be read by remote computer accessing each of our systems and billing us accordingly from a credit account.


As time goes by I believe our computers will not only get smarter but because of the sheer numbers involved and the possibility of unlimited access to information they will become difficult to control. Sooner or later someone will decide that each computer will have its own built in identification code put there by the manufacturer so that, when it goes on line, the Department of DATA will have a source of income. Lets face it if people gave up smoking and bought electric vehicles, revenue would have to come from somewhere! I hasten to add that I am not recommending this as a course of action!

I think that computing today is as exciting now as in the beginning but there is still a lot more to come.