Roger Ebert's Digital Transformation

Famed film critic gives inspirational final talk at TED

Published: March 5th 2011
in Culture » Movies

Roger and Chaz Ebert at the TED conference

With the help of his wife and the Alex-equipped MacBook, a computer generate high quality voice with an American accent, Ebert delivered the final talk at the TED conference on Friday in Long Beach, California.


Breaking the ice with the audience, Ebert channeled his inner HAL by telling the audience that he “became operational on June 18, 1942. [AND] like HAL 9000, I also speak with a computerized voice.”


On June 16, 2006, Ebert underwent surgery to remove cancerous tissue near his right jaw, which included removing a section of jaw bone. Following complications from the surgery, where he “came within a breath of death.” as Ebert said, he recovered but was left without a voice. In 2007 he made his first public appearance where he spoke with the assistance of his Wife Chaz, through the use of written notes.


Last year Ebert appeared on Opera to share the remarkably realistic computerized voice, the same one used at the TED conference, although evolved since then, having added more realistic reflections for question marks, exclamations points and tone of voice.


Ebert and his wife took the audience through his inspirational journey, starting from the 2006 experience to his search for technology that would help him better communicated with his fans and family. A life-long fan of technology, Ebert credited this passion with giving him the inspiration to both find his “voice” and continue his career on the Internet via social media and blogs.


“For me, the Internet began as a useful tool and now has become something I rely on for my actual daily existence…[if this had happened before], I’d be isolated as a hermit; I’d be trapped inside my head. Because of the digital revolution, I have a voice, and I do not have to scream.”


Elbert’s illness and physical struggles have been quite public, which is exactly how he wants it. His fans have remarked that his public appearances have been inspirational to cancer victims and survivors worldwide. However, these struggles can be taxing, as was witnessed by Chaz, who became quite emotional when reading his words aloud.


“People talk loudly and slowly to me…sometimes they assume I am deaf. There are people that don’t want to make eye contact. It is human nature to look away from illness; we don’t enjoy a reminder of our own fragile mortality… that’s why writing on the Internet has been a life saver for me.”


In his closing remarks, which were followed by laughter, tears and a standing ovation, Ebert put his computer generated voice to the ultimate test, by telling a joke, saying, “If a computer can successfully tell a joke as well Henry Youngman, then that’s the voice I want.”

Related articles: (Roger Ebert, TED, )
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