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Book review: ‘Now you’re talking’ by Trevor Cox

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A treat of a book exploring the nature of speech and how technology has transformed – and continues to transform – the way we speak and listen.

“Being able to speak is what makes us human”, Cox tells us. Neanderthals may have had some form of protolanguage, birds can master extensive human vocabularies and many other animals have sound-based means of communication, but only mature humans have that killer combination of anatomy and cognitive ability that allows us to create (and interpret) the peculiar vibrations that we call conversation. If that’s what makes us human, what happens when computers begin to join in?

Cox, who is Professor of Acoustic Engineering at the University of Salford, has chosen a subject which is at once familiar and neglected. Speaking and listening – including with the assistance of technology such as telephones – comes so naturally to us that we rarely stop and think about what we are doing. Now You’re Talking: The Story of Human Conversation from the Neanderthals to Artificial Intelligence (Penguin, £20.00, ISBN 9781473547223) neatly pulls together evolutionary biology, physics, anatomy and computer science with personal stories to tell the story of speech.

The book begins by focusing on how speech arose in humans, how our voices age and how integral they are to our identities. Cox manages to knit together subjects as diverse as the accents in babies’ cries; speech therapy for people transitioning gender; foreign accent syndrome and the bizarre mystery of the changing female voice: for no known biological reason, women’s voices have gradually deepened over the past 50 years.

Cox moves on to how technology has changed the nature of speech since Thomas Edison recorded and played a reading of “Mary had a little lamb” on a phonograph in 1877. Now, listening no longer has to be a live experience and disembodied voices feel natural. Recording, amplifying and tampering with voices has led to all sorts of artistic consequences. For instance, singers today do not have to project their voices to fill entire opera houses; a microphone allows them to reach their audiences with intimate, emotion-laden crooning.

The final part of the book deals with how artificial intelligence is changing our relationship with speaking and listening. Already, computers can listen to us speaking and offer back simple responses with ever-improving natural language processing abilities. It is more startling to think of a time when neural networks could be used to mimic the speech of an individual – both in content and tone – and continue speaking for them after death.

Now You’re Talking is less compelling when pushing through the technicalities and possibilities of artificial intelligence than when it is dealing with the more certain realities of conversation through history and today. This book is perhaps at its best when it explores the association of our voices with our identities as humans and as individuals and the difficulty people suffer when their voices disappear, deteriorate or – in some instances – dramatically change.

This is an interesting and highly readable book, written with a light touch and full of overlooked ideas well worth chatting about.

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