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Artificial Ineloquence

The verbal tics of President-elect Barack Obama and Senate-hopeful Caroline Kennedy have attracted attention lately. His is "ah." Hers is "you know." Now comes word that IBM (IBM) has patented a process for inserting hemming and hawing into the vocabularies of those mechanized voices we hear on customer-service telephone calls and car navigation systems. The patent, for "generating paralinguistic phenomena via markup in text-to-speech syntheses," is the next step in making computer voices more expressive and less perfect—more like human speech, in other words.

IBM's scientists say they aren't trying to fool us into thinking we're speaking to people when we're not. They just "want to make automated systems easier and more pleasant to use," according to IBM researcher Andy Aaron. The company has hired actors to record hundreds of expressions that convey emotion in conversation, from "hmm" to "ewwwww!" They're also gathering the sounds of laughing, giggling, snorting, sniffing, and—for shoot-em-up computer gaming—grunting, groaning, and gasping. Who knows? The voice of that creepy computer "Hal" from 2001: A Space Odyssey may not be far behind.

Hamm is a senior writer for BusinessWeek in New York and author of the Globespotting blog.

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