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November 13, 2002

Tales told with expression

From: Oregonian, OR
Nov. 13, 2002

Researchers work to make computers spellbinding storytellers for special kids


HILLSBORO S uccess teaching children with learning and language disabilities may all be in the tone of voice -- especially that given to a computer.

With the help of a $1.8 million grant from the National Science Foundation, scientists at Oregon Health & Science University's OGI School of Science and Engineering are working to create computers that talk and tell stories like humans do.

Having computers that can read text with the skill of a human storyteller is crucial to engaging children who use the machines to improve their language and vocabulary, said Jan van Santen, who heads OGI's Center for Spoken Language Understanding.

Everyone has heard computerized voices. The monotone fails to capture the excitement in any given sentence that a person instinctively reads.

What researchers hope to do is give computers a new voice that sounds more like a person, with the ability to read like a storyteller. During a dramatic passage in a book, for example, the computer will be able to read more quickly in a higher tone.

Van Santen and other OGI researchers have helped develop computer systems in the past to tutor students with language disabilities, like those at Tucker Maxon Oral School in Portland, where the researchers' findings are eagerly awaited.

"Learning vocabulary is just so much more difficult for kids with hearing loss because they don't have the opportunity to overhear the conversations around them," said Patrick Stone, Tucker Maxon's executive director.

The school has worked with OGI to develop a program called a vocabulary tutor. With the OGI system, Stone said, teachers can quickly make up lesson plans by scanning text and typing in words.

"Deaf kids have to be consciously taught their vocabulary," he said. "This program helps us do that."

Van Santen will conduct research on the new program with a group of linguists, autism experts, computer scientists and neuropsychologists at Carnegie-Mellon University and AT&T Research. He said his new program is unique because, unlike other text-synthesis research, it is not financed by the military or the telecommunications industry.

Van Santen said that for children with developmental or language problems, having educational materials that contain great expression or intonation is essential. Without it, they tend not to pay attention.

Researchers are recording the voices of skilled human storytellers, Van Santen said. The OGI team will analyze those recordings to establish speech patterns.

Once those patterns are determined, they will become the basis for a set of rules taught to the computer program. The goal is to create software that can read text and then pronounce it with the same intonation and enthusiasm as a skilled human storyteller.

Hopefully, Van Santen said, the system will be able to reflect that bunnies in a children's story are often good and that wolves are generally bad and use a voice to get those messages across.

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