Setting the future to music

Some morning when you're feeling strong enough to face the future - and we do mean The Future - you may want to dial 900-410-8383. If you're feeling as frisky as Buck Rogers and just longing to know What's Next but you're trying to cut down on your phone bill this month, read on and, as a public service, we'll tell you what your dime-plus would have bought on this hotline.

A voice sounding just a little too friendly, like a second-grade teacher on the first day of school, would have murmured in your ear: ''Hello! I'm a computer, speaking for Science '83. Now hear me sing.''

We have to admit that the first time around we hung up right there. If the idea of a talking computer embarrasses us, the idea of a singing computer can panic us. But where The Future is concerned, we're more afraid of being afraid than anything else, and so, with trembling digit finger, we dialed our too-friendly computer again.

How shall we review the mini-concert? The Synthetic Singer proved to be not all that bad - a little like a nervous tenor warming up. Or was it a nervous baritone?

Maybe we had a bad connection. But we haven't heard such musical infidelity since grandmother's hand-wind Victrola with the cactus needle. The voice was ready for the Met, the recording was ready for the Morgan Memorial.

The narrator described a bit of the trial-and-error that went into constructing Syn-Sing (''Some vibratos. Whoops. Too much . . .'').

At the end, after a couple of lilting samples, our host asked: ''Which of the voices on this tape belonged to a computer?''

We don't feel free to give away the punch line.

It may be sufficient to say: We have heard The Future, and it sings.

A professor from the University of Southern California, Richard Byrne, has formulated the rule: ''People don't like technology to act human.'' After hearing the Syn-Singer, we're inclined to believe he's right, at least when it comes to electronic impersonations of Placido Domingo or Ella Fitzgerald.

A lot of people aren't too happy when their automobile tells them - in words - to fasten your seat belt, dummy, or advises them in a superior ''2001'' voice that they're running out of gas. But just wait until these instructions come set to music and some dashboard Syn-Singer announces a side-of-the-road breakdown by belting out the old Bessie Smith blues: ''You've been a good old wagon, but Daddy, you done broke down.''

One can feel a bit dubious too about the ''cognitive travel agent'' being developed by Roger Shank, chairman of the Department of Computer Science at Yale , who specializes in computers that understand English and just love dialogue - the little extroverts!

Professor Shank makes it sound so simple: ''All you have to say is, 'I want to go to Dallas,' and it (the Cognitive Travel Agent) asks you a couple of questions about why and how come, and then sets up the trip for you.''

The fact is, we've never confided to a real travel agent ''why and how come'' we want to go to Dallas, or any place else, and we're not sure we wish to start discussing motives with a computer. Just the ticket, please.

Still, what truly troubles us is our conviction that, at some point, the Cognitive Travel Agent will say, ''Hey, this reminds me of a song,'' and burst into a couple of choruses of ''Yellow Bird'' or ''If I Had the Wings of an Angel'' or ''Come Fly With Me'' - doing a syn-sing imitation of Frank Sinatra.

In every conversation one party has the initiative - one party, if ever so slightly, has the upper hand. There's just no doubt in our mind that, regardless of how brilliantly we're chatting along, if the other party bursts into song, or even whistles through the teeth, we've lost the initiative. We've become The Listener.

So we'll take our chances with a talking computer, but the Synthetic Singer makes us feel like the pup sitting by the speaker of our grandmother's old Victrola, harking to ''His Master's Voice.''

It shouldn't happen to a synthetic dog.

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