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People Top 5
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- April 12, 1982
- Vol. 17
- No. 14
Blind Scientist Peter Duran Thrills to the Sweet Sound of His Computer's Voice
Duran, 39, was a postgraduate student in psycholinguistics (the psychology of language processing) at MIT when he assisted at the birth of the talking computer in 1970. "A group of us," he recalls, "got a computer to say five words: 'Hi there and [expletive deleted] you.' We promptly went out and got drunk." A year later Duran began developing a system that could read Braille aloud. In 1977 he founded ARTS (Audio Response Time Sharing) Computer Products in Boston with the help of his sighted wife, Marcia, the company's chairwoman and "official worry-wart." To date ARTS has sold 65 ORATORS (at $5,000 per) and 50 terminals (at $7,000 each) that display letters up to six inches high for the partially sighted.
Duran's talking computer is a formidable accomplishment. "What we did was take recorded speech, program it and store it," he explains. "Instead of recording whole words, we have recorded the composite parts of words, called phonemes." After recording the 64 phonemes of English, Duran spent nearly five years writing a program that analyzed the relationship between phonemes and spelling so that the computer would pronounce the words correctly. "It took 800 rules of spelling," says Duran, who must still devise a program for inflections to humanize the machine's sci-fi monotone.
Partially blinded at birth by excess oxygen in his incubator, Duran lost his sight completely in a playground accident at age 10. He was the first blind student to attend Stamford (Conn.) High School and later studied mathematics at Hartford's Trinity College and the University of Illinois. He met Marcia through a computer dating service in 1967. They live with son Brian, 5, in Cambridge, and Peter, who unwinds by reading math textbooks in Braille, asks: "Wouldn't it be interesting to come up with a computer that sees as well as talks?"
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