Mike Elgan: How Google plans to clone you

Google is working on a virtual version of you. Will you call it 'Mini-Me?'

Google this week acquired Phonetic Arts. The U.K.-based company specializes in technology that transforms a recorded voice into a computer-generated voice that sounds like the recording. In other words, it "captures" the tonal qualities, cadence and rhythm of how a real individual person talks, and applies them to a machine voice. The result is that a computer will be able to read any text, and it will sound convincingly like the original speaker talking.

The voice Google wants to capture is yours.

Better than Star Trek

In Gene Roddenberry's original Star Trek TV series, the characters interacted with computers by talking, and the computers talked back. Although this was a breathtakingly advanced concept in the late 1960s, it turns out that the real future is far more interesting.

In '60s sci-fi, voice interaction with a computer was generic -- used for input and output, for commands and responses. It wasn't customized, and it certainly wasn't personalized.

A much more accurate fictional account of where voice interaction is going comes from William Gibson's 1984 novel Neuromancer. In that book, people have virtual versions of themselves, represented by a 3D computer scan of the person's face and a computer-generated version of their voice, backed by artificial intelligence and data about the real person.

Gibson expanded on the concept in another novel, called Mona Lisa Overdrive. In that work, people could record their personalities on storage media: "They respond, when questioned, in a manner approximating the response of the subject."

Google's vision is more Gibson than Roddenberry. Consider the following intersecting trends.

Synthetic voice is ready for prime time

Years ago, Microsoft demonstrated speech technology roughly similar to what Phonetic Arts has developed. In the demo, you could type any word or phrase, and it would be read back to you in the voice of either Elvis Presley or Marilyn Monroe. Of course, Microsoft these days is the Xerox PARC of the technology industry from a research and development standpoint -- it invents revolutionary technology but can't seem to ship it.

Movie critic Roger Ebert was in the news earlier this year because he began using a synthetic voice that sounds just like his real voice. Ebert lost the capacity to speak in 2006 because of thyroid cancer. A Scotland-based company called CereProc captured recordings of Ebert's voice from TV and from DVD commentaries, then used them to generate a custom computer voice.

The technology is ready for prime time and will only be improved in the future. Phonetic Arts is on the forefront, and now Google owns it.

Google knows everything about you

If you're a heavy user of Google services like I am, Google knows your name, address, phone number, schedule and what you care about (all your searches are stored). At the IFA in Berlin recently, Google CEO Eric Schmidt pointed out what most of us already know: "We know roughly who you are, roughly what you care about, roughly who your friends are."

Google already has parts of your brain stored online

Schmidt called the next wave an "age of augmented humanity" -- a "near-term future in which you don't forget anything, because the computer remembers." He's talking about what the people at reQall refer to as "prosthetic memory."

In a way, an early version of "augmented humanity" already exists. Instead of remembering tasks, phone numbers, appointments, ideas and other things, you can offload those memories to Google Tasks, Contacts, Calendar and Docs. Searches, which reflect your interests, are all stored and accessible by Google. E-mail and chat are also accessible by Google servers.

With each passing year, we move more of what used to reside in our minds to Google.

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