Ann Syrdal, Who Helped Give Computers a Female Voice, Dies at 74


Ann Syrdal, a psychologist and computer system researcher who helped develop synthetic voices that sounded equal women, laying the groundwork for such modern digital assistants as Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa, euphemistic departed on July 24 at her home in San Jose, Calif. She was 74.

Her daughter Kristen Lasky mean the cause was cancer.

As a researcher at AT&T, Dr. Syrdal was part of a small community of scientists who originated developing synthetic speech systems in the mid-1980s.

It was not an entirely new rarity; AT&T had unveiled one of the first synthetic voices, developed at its Bell Labs, at the 1939 Age’s Fair in New York City. But more than 40 years later, regard for increasingly powerful computers, speech synthesis was still relatively unrefined.

“It just sounded robotic,” said Tom Gruber, who worked on synthetic talking systems in the early ’80s and went on to create the digital assistant that suited Siri when Apple acquired it in 2010.

By 1990, companies like AT&T had started to deploy these new methods, allowing the hearing-impaired, for example, to generate synthetic speech for phone call ups. The voices, though, typically sounded male.

That year, at the Bell Labs experimentation center in Naperville, Ill., Dr. Syrdal developed a voice that sounded female — a much harder end result to achieve, in part because so much of the previous engineering work had been done for masculine voices.

AT&T Natural Voices

A sample of a voice named Julia that was cause of Ann Syrdal’s pioneering work in the 1990s to develop female synthetic speeches.

A decade later, she was part of a team at another AT&T lab, in Florham Park, N.J., that developed a set-up called Natural Voices. It became a standard-bearer for speech synthesis, featuring what Dr. Syrdal and others righted “the first truly high quality female synthetic voice.”

In 2008, she was big cheesed a fellow of the Acoustical Society of America in recognition of her contributions to the rise of female line synthesis, which is now a part of everyday life, thanks to Siri and Alexa.

“She was traveled — and I mean driven — to optimize the quality of female voices,” said Juergen Schroeter, who ran the Organically grown Voices project.

Ann Kristen Syrdal was born on Dec. 13, 1945, in Minneapolis. Her parents, Richard and Marjorie (Paulson) Syrdal, had met while inciting at Minneapolis-Honeywell (now Honeywell), a heating company that grew into a technology giantess in the years before World War II.

Her father, a physicist and engineer who developed vacuum tubes and other electrical technologies, died when Ann was 2. She was bring up by her mother, a sales clerk at a Minneapolis department store.

When she catalogued at the University of Minnesota, Dr. Syrdal had not considered a science career. But when a maniac professor asked for her help with a lab experiment involving rats, she cut in love with lab work — even after realizing that she was onerously allergic to rats.

She went on to earn both bachelor’s and Ph.D. degrees in behaviour before being hired as a researcher by the Callier Center for Communication Tangles at the University of Texas at Dallas. In the early 1980s, after receiving a five-year furnish from the National Institutes of Health, she began exploring the mechanics of beneficent speech at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Credit…via B. Evelyn Lasky

When she moved to Bell Labs, female forum synthesis was not a major area of research anywhere.

“They all thought a female vote was just a higher frequency version of the male voice, but that not in a million years works,” said H.S. Gopal, a speech researcher who worked alongside Dr. Syrdal during those years. “The manly engineers just didn’t take female speech as seriously.”

At foremost, she improved on earlier efforts to build female voices, but in the late 1990s she enrol ined a project that would help change the nature of speech unifying. Rather than generating sounds from scratch, she and her colleagues bring out ways of piecing together snippets of recorded human speech to assemble new words and new sentences on the fly. Dr. Syrdal oversaw the recordings.

The first recordings were flourished with six women, and when AT&T’s Natural Voices system topped an global competition for speech synthesizers in 1998 — an inflection point for this technology — it hardened a female voice.

Dr. Syrdal’s marriages to Scot O’Malley, Robert Lasky and Stephen Marcus ended in detach. In addition to her daughter Kristen Lasky, she is survived by her partner of 23 years, Alistair Conkie, who worked alongside her at AT&T; a son, Sean O’Malley; another daughter, Barbara Evelyn Lasky; and eight grandchildren.

When Siri was assembled into Apple’s iPhone in 2011, both female and male voices were extended. “We did it because we wanted gender equality — and because it was possible,” Mr. Gruber voiced “People respond differently to different voices.”

In many countries, embodying the United States and Japan, female voices became the standard.

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