Google last week acquired Phonetic Arts. The U.K.-based company specializes in technology that transforms a recorded voice into a computer-generated voice that sounds like the recording. In other words, it "captures" the tonal qualities, cadence and rhythm of how a real individual person talks, and applies them to a machine voice. The result is that a computer will be able to read any text, and it will sound convincingly like the original speaker talking.
The voice Google wants to capture is yours.
Better than Star Trek
In Gene Roddenberry's original Star Trek TV series, the characters interacted with computers by talking, and the computers talked back. Although this was a breathtakingly advanced concept in the late 60s, it turns out that the real future is far more interesting.
In 60s sci-fi, voice interaction with a computer was generic, used for input and output, for commands and responses. It wasn't customized, and it certainly wasn't personalized.
A much more accurate fictional account of where voice interaction is going comes from William Gibson's 1984 novel "Neuromancer." In that book, people have virtual versions of themselves, represented by a 3D computer scan of the person's face, a computer-generated version of their voice, backed by artificial intelligence and data about the real person.
Gibson expanded on the concept in another novel, called "Mona Lisa Overdrive." In that work, people could record their personalities on storage media. "They respond, when questioned, in a manner approximating the response of the subject."
Google's vision is more Gibson than Roddenberry. Consider the following intersecting trends:
Synthetic voice is ready for prime time
Years ago, Microsoft demonstrated speech technology roughly similar to what Phonetic Arts has developed. In the demo, you could type any word or phrase, which would be read back to you in the voice of either Elvis Presley or Marilyn Monroe. Of course, Microsoft these days is the Xerox PARC of the technology industry from a research and development standpoint -- it invents revolutionary technology, but can't seem to ship it.
Movie critic Roger Ebert was in the news earlier this year because he began using a synthetic voice that sounds just like his real voice. Ebert lost the capacity to speak in 2006 because of thyroid cancer. A Scotland-based company called CereProc captured recordings of Ebert's voice from TV and from DVD commentaries, then used them to generate a custom computer voice.
The technology is ready for prime time, and will only be improved in the future. Phonetic Arts is on the forefront, and now Google owns it.
Google knows everything about you
If you're a heavy user of Google services like I am, Google knows your name, address, phone number, schedule and what you care about (all your searches are stored.) At the IFA in Berlin recently, Google CEO Eric Schmidt pointed out what most of us already know: "We know roughly who you are, roughly what you care about, roughly who your friends are."
Google already has parts of your brain stored online
Schmidt called the next wave an "age of augmented humanity" a "near-term future in which you don't forget anything, because the computer remembers." He's talking about what the reQall people call "prosthetic memory."
In away, an early version of "augmented humanity" already exists. Instead of remembering tasks, phone numbers, appointments, ideas and other things, you can offload those memories to Google Tasks, Contacts, Calendar and Docs. Searches, which reflect your interests, are all stored and accessible by Google. E-mail and chat are also accessible by Google servers.
With each passing year, we move more of what used to reside in our minds to Google.
Google is working on being proactive
Schmidt has also said recently that Google will be able to "suggest what you should do next [based on] what you care about. Imagine: We know where you are, we know what you like."
Google will increasingly use this knowledge to suggest things, to proactively and creatively remind you of things or bring your attention to facts. Google might beep your phone and say: "Your friend Janet has a birthday tomorrow. Why don't you buy her some chocolate? Her favorite chocolate store is just around the corner, and they're having a sale right now."
The Semantic Web is coming soon
A consensus among programming geniuses says tomorrow's Internet will be far more intelligent. The Semantic Web, or Web 3.0, is a vision for the Internet where software can read online content and make sense of it.
Today's Internet is search-based. If you want to know something, you type words into a search engine. The search servers don't "understand" your query, and they can't read the pages offered as results. They're just looking for your keywords, and rank the results based on other collected information, such as the arrangement of words on the page, the number of links to that page, etc.
Tomorrow's Internet will involve something akin to machine understanding. Instead of typing in a search keyword, you'll simply ask a question. Semantic Web servers will find the best results, then come back and summarize them for you.
You'll ask a question like "What is the name of the lead flying monkey in 'The Wizard of Oz'?" Instead of returning a bunch of movie fan pages, the result will simply be: "Nikko." You won't have to see "pages," just results or answers.
Of course, Google will not only know everything about everything and everyone, it will also be keenly aware of all aspects of what Facebook calls your "social graph." Tomorrow's social Semantic Web can handle requests like "Tell everyone I know who's nearby that I'll be a Barney's Bar for awhile," and questions like: "What movie would my friends recommend?"
Your own virtual you
Put all this together, and what've you got? What happens when Google services can talk to you and understand what you say, know everything about you and everyone you know, can make intelligent suggestions proactively and can understand everything on the Internet? And can talk in your voice.
What you'll have is a clone of yourself.
You'll simply ask your clone to do things -- "buy a newish book I'll like," "ask Steve if he's free for lunch tomorrow and pick a place," "send all my Christmas cards," or "find something fun for me to do this weekend."
When your Google self leaves voice-mail or calls your friends, it will be in your voice. It will know your mind -- your preferences, history and choices -- and act accordingly on your behalf. It will say the things you would say, and make the choices you would make.
"Google Me" would be a great name for this service. Or, you might call it "Mini-Me."
The genius of Google is not to wait until everything's ready, but to roll it out piecemeal as various bits of the vision become feasible.
The Phonetic Arts acquisition represents another important piece of the "virtual you" service of tomorrow. Google will scan your voice. They'll scan your face. They're already scanning yours life, night and day.
Your Google clone is under construction. Will you enjoy this service? (Your clone would know.)
Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. Contact and learn more about Mike at Elgan.com, or subscribe to his free e-mail newsletter, Mike's List.
This story, "How Google Plans to Clone You" was originally published by Computerworld.