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Presentation on 'Talking Like a Robot'

On February 14th, 2020, the Lab welcomed Christopher Grobe (Amherst College), Marit MacArthur (UC Davis), and Lee Miller (UC Davis) for their presentation, "Talking Like a Robot.

If someone asked you to talk like a robot, you probably could—but how would you know how? Personal experience? Documented fact? Popular art and culture? Your own idea of how a robot talks? Probably all four, to some degree. In this talk, we bring artistic causes into focus, asking how vocal performance culture has shaped what it means to “talk like a robot.” We will start with quick overviews of two relevant subjects: (a) the history of voice synthesis and (b) the history of human performers giving voice to robot characters. Comparing the generic conventions of “robotic” human performance to historical and contemporary constraints of synthesized speech, from early vocoders to today’s chatbots and virtual agents, we highlight the choices performers make: the way they mimic, ignore, or even invent robotic modes of speech. Using a corpus of sample audio recordings from film and TV depictions of synthesized voices from the 1950s to the present, we will also demonstrate the explanatory power of our own leading-edge tools for analyzing pitch and timing patterns in vocal performance.

Christopher Grobe is associate professor of English at Amherst College and an ACLS Burkhardt Fellow in 2019-20 in the Department of Theatre and Performance Studies at Stanford University.

Marit J. MacArthur is a lecturer in the University Writing Program and is affiliate faculty in Performance Studies at UC Davis.

Lee M. Miller is professor of neurobiology and technical director of the Center for Mind and Brain at UC Davis.