In the end, Roger Ebertâ€™s computer voice passed what he called the ultimate test. It got a laugh, which was no easy thing given the emotionally wrenching talk Ebert, his wife and two friends gave to close the TED conference Friday.
Ebert, the film and culture critic, lost the ability to speak and much of his lower jaw after operations for cancer four years ago.
Taking the stage at the conference in Long Beach, California, he wore a newly designed facial prosthesis. Ebert spoke through "Alex," a computer voice from his MacBook, and was accompanied by his wife, Chaz, and friends John Hunter and Dean Ornish. The four took turns giving the talk, as Ebert told the story of his illness, which turned a self-described "motor mouth" into a man who can't have a conventional conversation.
TED, which originally stood for the subjects of technology, entertainment and design, is a high-profile conference run by a nonprofit dedicated to "Ideas Worth Spreading." Its conference this year was titled, "The Rediscovery of Wonder."
"When you see me today, I look like the Phantom of the Opera," Ebert said, as Chaz immediately broke in to say, "No, you donâ€™t!" She had to pause in the midst of the speech to regain composure.
"It is human nature to look away from illness," Ebert added, explaining that making friends for him is now much easier online, where his blog and Twitter feed draw wide readership. "I become uncomfortable when separated from my laptop."
Ebert began by playing a clip from the film "2001: A Space Odyssey," in which the eerie voice of the computer HAL 9000 says repeatedly, "My mind is going." The critic likened some of his computer voices to HAL, but pointed out there has been immense progress in technology used to simulate voices. A company in Scotland was able to create a computer voice that sounds like Ebert before he lost his ability to speak. The voice was generated through processing many hours of tapes of Ebert talking.
Still, the voice he put to the test was the impersonal "Alex."
"The ultimate test of a computer voice is whether it can tell a joke like Henny Youngman," Ebert said.
He told the audience, some in a somber state, a story that changed their mood:
"A guy goes to a psychiatrist, who tells him, 'Youâ€™re crazy.'
"He says, 'I want a second opinion.'
" 'Youâ€™re ugly.' "
Bill Gates took on state officials across the country Thursday, accusing them of playing accounting tricks with budgets that even Enronâ€™s executives wouldnâ€™t have tried.
â€śThe guys at Enron would never have done this, this is so blatant, so extreme,â€ť said Gates, speaking at the TED Conference in Long Beach, California. â€śIs anyone paying attention to what these guys do?â€ť
The Microsoft founder and philanthropist said the stakes in the growing deficits in states are huge because obligations to pay for health care and pensions for an aging population threaten to force huge cuts in education.
Gates used Californiaâ€™s budget as an example, pointing to the $25 billion shortfall faced by Gov. Jerry Brown when he took office this year. As health care takes up a larger and larger proportion of the budget, education spending would have to be cut in half to make up the difference. Gates cast that as a choice between paying the older generationÂ versus investing in education for the young.
On paper, 49 states have to have balanced budgets. But Gates said thatâ€™s a â€śpretenseâ€ť and that rather than balancing budgets, many states are playing tricks by borrowing, securitizing the proceeds from tobacco company settlements, and using one-shot tactics such as selling off state property to balance budgets.
While California spends more than $100 billion a year, far less brainpower goes into studying the accounting and the wisdom of spending decisions than at two much smaller enterprisesÂ - Microsoft and Google, Gates said. States should be held to the same accounting principles as those which apply to private companies, he said.
He said he will use his foundationâ€™s website to publicize the facts about state budgets and suggested people read Marguerite Rozaâ€™s book â€śEducational Economics: Where Do School Funds Go?â€ťto learn more.
â€śWe need to care about state budgets because they are critical for our kids and our future,â€ť said Gates, who has used the TED conference as a platform in recent years for his views on global health, education and energy. Gates also curated a session Wednesday at the conference, which is run by TED, a nonprofit dedicated to â€śIdeas worth spreading.â€ť
"This talk is a little bit insane," confided Peter Molyneux, the head of the European games division of Microsoft, as he prepared to demo a game called "Milo" at the TED Global conference in Oxford on Tuesday.
He asked audience members to cross their fingers as they waited to see if the live demo would work.
"Milo" is a story-telling game about a little boy who's unhappy because his family has moved from London to New England and his parents are too busy to listen to what's on his mind. Molyneux said his goal with the game, which is still under development, is to recreate the feeling he had as a 4-year-old child when his father told him a story about a robot.
The idea, he said, is to create a real, living boy in a computer.
The X Prize Foundation announced today that it is developing a multimillion-dollar â€śoil spill cleanup X challengeâ€ť to come up with solutions to cleaning up shorelines and open water fouled by oil leaking from the BP Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico.
Speaking at the TEDxOilSpill conference in Washington, Frances Beland of the X Prize Foundation asked the audience of 300, and many more watching the conferenceâ€™s videostream, â€śWhat do you prize?â€ť Beland told CNN after his appearance that the oil-related challenge will probably offer about $3 million in prize money for a cleanup solution.
The X Prize Foundation gained public attention for its X Prize of $10 million awarded for the development of private spacecraft, and the nonprofit foundation has created other prize challenges.
It is day 70 of the Gulf oil crisis. Millions of words and thousands of hours of video have been devoted to the explosion at BP's Deepwater Horizon rig and the gushing of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
And yet the organizers of a conference in Washington Monday think that there's actually a shortage of information about the disaster. The two technology entrepreneurs behind the conference, TEDx OilSpill, are hoping the event will start to fix that problem.
â€śThereâ€™s sort of this void right now with information coming out of the Gulf,â€ť says Nate Mook. â€śSomething catastrophic has happened. Most people donâ€™t understand the underlying issues that led to this happening. Theyâ€™re really not aware of the all of the complexities behind their getting into their car and driving â€¦ itâ€™s brought to the forefront a lot of things that have been on the sidelines for a long time â€“ with our oceans, with how important the marine eco-system is, with where we are getting our energy, what are we putting at risk, and â€¦ new technologies being developed.â€ť
To answer those questions an array of speakers, from ocean explorer Sylvia Earle to energy expert Amory Lovins to â€śLeroy Stick,â€ť the anonymous creator of the fake BP Twitter (@BPGlobalPR) account with more than179,000 followers, will speak onstage at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington from 9 am to about 7 pm. The event will be streamed at: http://tedxoilspill.com/live/. And people will gather to watch the stream or discuss the issues in 125 meetups around the nation and world.