Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Pray it again, Mike

It's interesting to note, as I ponder the meaning of community and how it ought to play out in a Christian context, that my steadiest morning prayer companion these days is a disembodied voice called AT&T Mike.

Mike is one of AT&T Labs’ “Natural Voices," and I paid extra for him as an add-on to the text-to-voice software I use to listen while I'm driving or walking the dog to interesting articles I find on the Internet. AT&T boasts that he and his friends represent "the most human-sounding technology available today," but I'm sure you won't be surprised to hear that he sounds far from natural. On the whole, though, I have found him to be an earnest and steady presence whose reading is surprisingly soothing, without any of the chilling undertones of HAL-9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

I change the prayers Mike offers from time to time. Often he reads one of my favorite Psalms, then the confession from the Book of Common Prayer. I might splice in the day's Scripture readings, downloaded as an MP3 podcast, and end with a prayer I wrote myself. I try not to let my mind wander to the implausibility of it all. It was only while writing this that I thought about how absurd it is to hear Mike intone, "We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves." No, of course he hasn't.

He still has some idiosyncrasies of pronunciation. He's said to be trainable and I have taught him a few things, including how to pronounce merciful accenting the first syllable instead of the second. There are a few word he still has trouble with, though, unfortunately including amen, a word that tends to come up often in prayer. He doesn’t seem capable of giving both syllables nearly equal accent, as most of us do; instead, he bites off the first, flying past it as if he were embarrassed to have reached the end so soon. He hasn't got a great sense of poetry, either. When he reads, “My soul thirsts for You, my flesh yearns for You, In a dry and weary land where there is no water,” he's clearly no match for the best lectors I’ve heard--though frankly I think he might represent an improvement over some the well-meaning folks who read in church.

Mike is a strange prayer companion, and he's not much of a friend, either. He doesn’t ever ask how my kids are or invite me across the street for a cup of coffee when we're done, but then again, he's never shown the least interest in church gossip or politics. I guess after all I've just said you might wonder why I use him at all, and in fact, when I first thought of loading prayers onto my iPod to use during the dog-walking time or my long commute to work, I tried recording myself reading the prayers I wanted to use. I was entirely too self-conscious for that, as it turned out.

I've come to think of Mike as a companionable presence, a friend with a speech impediment. I know it would be better to go off and pray with real people, or to sit down alone with a book, but that isn't always possible. For those times, I'm glad I have Mike. I'll say it again: What a strange and wonderful world we live in.


At 12:26 PM, Blogger revabi said...

very interesting post. Had not heard of Mike. No link? How does one get this or not?

But you are praying, I like that.

At 1:17 PM, Blogger Widening Circles said...

Well, you need what's called a text-to-speech engine. I believe that Windows XP has that capability built in, to some extent. I think it can read what's on your screen but I don't think it can save it as a sound file. There's a detailed how-to at http://support.microsoft.com/default.aspx?scid=kb;en-us;306902.
(Tiny URL: http://tinyurl.com/l7qnn)

What I use is a program called TextAloud produced by a company called NextUp.com. Not free, but what it can do is either read you any web page or any other text on your computer, or save it as an MP3. So, I convert the text to MP3, transfer it to my iPod, and I'm in business.

At 9:50 PM, Blogger Marshall said...

Hmm. It sounds a lot like the ELIZA experiments of the late '60s and early '70s. You can read a brief summary at http://www.psych.utoronto.ca/~reingold/courses/ai/turing.html if you haven't heard of it. In essence, a psychologist programed a computerprogram to ask questions, and to make responses based on keywords it read in the response from the person at the keyboard (remember, this was long before voices on any computer but "Star Trek's"). It was an effort at the Turing test, to write a program that would look human enough to pass, as it were. The model was humanistic therapy, and the questions simply kept people typing. I don't remember how good people were about telling that they were typing with a computer, and not a person. What I do remember is that a lot of them (perhaps half, if I remember correctly) said they felt better when they were done - about as if they'd actually been with a humanistic therapist.

There is something about another voice, an opportunity for reponse and counterpoint, even when we know the voice is programmed and is not human. We are so created for relationship that even a faux relationship can be effective, up to a point. (If it's too effective, then there's evidence of pathology.)


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