Vlastimil Gular’s life took an unwelcome turn a year ago: minor surgery on his vocal cords revealed throat cancer, which led to the loss of his larynx and with it, his voice.
But the 51-year-old father of four is still chatting away using his own voice rather than the tinny timbre of a robot, thanks to an innovative app developed by two Czech universities.
“I find this very useful,” Gular told AFP, using the app to type in what he wanted to say, in his own voice, via a mobile phone.
“I’m not very good at using the voice prosthesis,” he added, pointing at the hole the size of a large coin in his throat.
This small silicon device implanted in the throat allows people to speak by pressing the hole with their fingers to regulate airflow through the prosthesis and so create sound.
But Gular prefers the new hi-tech voice app.
It was developed for patients set to lose their voice due to a laryngectomy, or removal of the larynx, a typical procedure for advanced stages of throat cancer.
The joint project of the University of West Bohemia in Pilsen, Prague’s Charles University and two private companies — CertiCon and SpeechTech — kicked off nearly two years ago.
The technology uses recordings of a patient’s voice to create a synthetic speech that can be played on their mobile phones, tablets or laptops via the app.
Ideally, patients need to record more than 10,000 sentences to provide scientists with enough material to produce their synthetic voice.
“We edit together individual sounds of speech so we need a lot of sentences,” said Jindrich Matousek, an expert on text-to-speech synthesis, speech modeling and acoustics who heads the project at the Pilsen university.
But there are drawbacks: patients facing laryngectomies usually have little time or energy to do the recordings in the wake of a diagnosis that requires swift treatment.
“It’s usually a matter of weeks,” said Barbora Repova, a doctor at the Motol University Hospital, working on the project for Charles University.
“The patients also have to tackle issues like their economic situation, their lives are turned upside down, and the last thing they want to do is to make the recording,” she told AFP.
To address these difficulties, scientists came up with a more streamlined method for the app, which is supported by the Technology Agency of the Czech Republic.
Working with fewer sentences — ideally 3,500 but as few as 300 — this method uses advanced statistical models such as artificial neural networks.
“You use speech models with certain parameters to generate synthesised speech,” said Matousek.
“Having more data is still better, but you can achieve decent quality with less data of a given voice.”
The sentences are carefully selected and individual sounds have to be recorded several times as they are pronounced differently next to different sounds or at the beginning and end of a word or sentence, he added.
So far, the Pilsen university has recorded 10 to 15 patients, according to Matousek.
Besides Czech, the Pilsen scientists have also created synthesised speech samples in English, Russian and Slovak.
Gular — an upholsterer who lost his job due to his handicap — managed to record 477 sentences over the three weeks between his diagnosis and the operation.
But he was stressed and less than satisfied with the quality of his voice.
“Throat cancer patients often suffer from some form of dysphonia (hoarseness) before the surgery, so in combination with a limited speech sample it makes the voice sound unnatural,” said Repova.
In a studio at the Pilsen university meanwhile, entrepreneur Jana Huttova is recording outlandish phrases.
The 34-year-old mother of three faces the risk of losing her voice to minor throat surgery — an operation on her parathyroid gland.
“The Chechens have always preferred a dagger-like Kalashnikov,” she says, reading from the text before her.
“I have small kids and I want them to hear my own voice, not a robot,” Huttova said.
Then she moved on to her next sentence: “We were attacked by a tyrannosaur’s baby dinosaurs.”
Matousek believes that in the future, patients will be able to use the app to record their voice at home using a specialised website to guide them through the process.
And he hopes that one day it will go even further.
“The ultimate vision is a miniature device connected to the brain, to the nerves linked to speech — then patients could control the device with their thoughts,” he said.
This kind of advanced solution is a very long way off, said Repova.
“But look at cochlear implants — 40 years ago when they started, we had no idea how it would develop, how widely they would end up being used,” she said, referring to the inner-ear implants used to tackle severe deafness.
“A happy end would be a device implanted in the throat that could talk with the patient’s own voice,” she told AFP.
“It’s realistic: it may not come in a year or even in 10 years, but it’s realistic and we’re on the way.”
Has Technology Disrupted the Essence of Journalism?
Traditional journalism is set to fade in the digital era
There was a time when there would be a 24-hour period of gap before the next newspaper would get published from any established news source. But the digital form of news story-telling today has suddenly changed the dynamics of everything – a transition many of us did not see coming.
Digital or Online Journalism, is a contemporary form of journalism where editorial content is distributed via the Internet, as opposed to publishing via print or broadcast. Digital news has inevitably stepped in with the surge in smartphone users and content consumption through portable screens like laptops, tablets, phones.
This online, social-media driven era of journalism has enormous benefits. With superior access to information, technology has revolutionised the way journalists gather data. A simple Google search can result in a plethora of rich text, information, and sources on the topic of interest.
Another value addition to journalism is how digital technology has allowed for creative and powerful visual content to complement stories. Graphics, animations, and top notch visuals are being easily created now.
Then there is the opportunity to discuss, engage, and debate with the audience too. Traditional journalism was a one-way communication channel. But now the channel is two-way which allows for immediate feedback. Anyone from the public can now give his or her opinion on the same platforms as the news sources. The digital age has contributed immensely to the emergence and development of ‘citizen’ journalism. This concept helps the public play an active role in the news dissemination process and includes online sharing of news-worthy content, spreading opinions, and using social media to gather and pass on news.
However, the challenges are also great in the digital arena, and in some ways are a threat to the traditional newsroom, and the dynamics of the profession of journalism.
Technology has made journalism so fast-paced that the newsroom now does not take the standard 24 hours to publish next morning’s paper. News is given out like wildfire; updated every minute. It can be posted anytime, anywhere and in most instances, is reported as soon as the word goes out. This generally results in verification and authenticity taking a back seat. The competition to get the word out there ‘faster than the others’ has changed the pace of storytelling and the impact of this fast pace is seen on the content which means it becomes more hurried and urgent. This also results in fake news – a globally reported consequence of the digital age of journalism.
According to a 2018 research by the Pew Research Centre, over two-thirds of US adults use some form of social media for their news consumption, “even if they don’t believe it.” About 43 percent use Facebook, 21 percent YouTube, 12 percent Twitter, 8 percent Instagram, 6 percent LinkedIn, 5 percent Reddit, 5 percent Snapchat, 2 percent WhatsApp and 1 percent Tumblr. The same survey also revealed that 57 percent of the people using social media for news expect it to be inaccurate but despite this mistrust, still continue to use the platforms.
Many media ventures are popping up, and getting successful because of their creative, snappy content that steals the limelight with click-bait headlines. These digital news organisations run ahead in time to give out the same news, with less effort, absence of reporters, and no accountability. Algorithm driven and social-media based news consumption has made truth less crucial.
Traditional journalism was more about intricately woven pieces of stories – taking time to gather information, to talk to as many sources possible, verifying information for credibility before a final piece was published. However, the news reporter does not go out to gather information anymore. The reporter has become a multi-faceted worker for a news organisation who gathers the story, captures audio, images, and videos. And with the help of modern easy to use tools; smartphones, go-pros, 360 degree feature and endless possibilities, the result is quick and fascinating.
With so much competition in todays’ digitally revolutionised age, advertising revenue has become harder to obtain. Without advertising, the journalism business model begins to fail. The industry has seen as a decline globally because of the difficulty in funding it. The Guardian, a British daily newspaper at one time lost 100 journalistic employees. A similar pattern is beginning to follow in Pakistan as the problem is the same for the whole industry.
One solution to this is a paywall – and organisations are beginning to use it to generate their revenue. Paid subscriptions to view news online are getting common. However even this goes against the essence of news, which is a ‘public-interest’ commodity. Charging people for content also means that the content must now be shaped ‘for’ the consumers. The true essence of journalism is to provide news stories that are authentic, objective, and unbiased completely. Now the challenge would be to provide such stories whilst making consumers feel that the content is worth their cash.
News organisations are now looking at the trending topics, and trying to give the audience what they want. The challenge here is for the editor to strike a balance and also provide news that have journalistic value and public importance too. Publications are shifting to less text-based and more engaging content using animations, videos, and pictures. The newsrooms are realising what is needed to keep the audiences’ attention intact and so they are designing content accordingly. Brand integration is another popular tool being used for advertising and has a lot of potential for revenue, even for news organisations.
Traditional journalism is set to fade as the digital era is taking over and more people are now consuming news through their screens, rather than papers or television. However, with the right ethics and professional values, quality control and good content creation, the essence of journalism can be kept intact in this shift towards a digital revolution.
The delights of reading!
Reading in print VS e-reading
When nestled in a couch near a window, with a favourite book in one hand and an expresso in the other, there is a heavenly feeling that all book lovers can connect themselves with. And there is a likelihood that this moment is amongst their best minutes ever. But does it feel the same with words blinking on a screen?
With the coming of the advanced world, the notion of reading has greatly changed. There have been various discussions with respect to print reading and digital reading, and it has not been distinguished as yet since both have plenty of reasons to motivate their roles.
The traditional reading, that is, reading from the print, takes the crown for readers of the old school of thought, for a number of reasons. The first relates to the physical feature. Holding a book, turning the crispy pages, inhaling the smell of the book and actually seeing the reading progress with pages remaining less to the right-side are all possible with a printed book only. And for some this smell is no less than an intoxication, as American author Ray Bradbury has appropriately expressed in one of his axioms:
“A computer does not smell … if a book is new, it smells great. If a book is old, it smells even better… And it stays with you forever. But the computer doesn’t do that for you. I’m sorry.”
Secondly, reading isn’t merely a recreation moment if you ask a book freak. It’s an addiction, that involves cautiously crafted steps. The giddy feeling of stepping into a bookshop, sensing the musty scent of paper, running hands over the beautifully decorated bookshelves, glancing at the titles and carrying books back into your room to add to your collection, is a happiness that a bookworm looks forward to constantly. E-reading, on the other hand, would leave one deprived of this ecstasy.
‘Books are a great companion’, isn’t just a phrase. One is never alone if he or she has a book in hand. One can turn a page and immerse oneself into a tirade of emotions, adventures and perspectives. That’s how books have the power to keep the reader hostage for hours. Reading digital, on the other hand, is an alienated experience. Tell me if a screen can be hugged tightly after a good read with the feeling as intense as that of a paper book.
The list doesn’t end here, printed books have been considered to be friendly on eyes and give a genuine feeling of serenity. Digital reading only adds strains to the already drained mind with burning eyes. It has also been proved that looking at a gleaming screen before bed takes away sleep. If one reads for the sake of relaxation, digital reading surely doesn’t serve that purpose.
There is yet another custom in the worlds of bookworms. There is no doubt that books make the perfect present, and easily affordable to be more specific. So the next time readers are hit with an unplanned invitation, they don’t doubt to snag one good book from the nearest store. You can’t say this about e-book, however.
A more fascinating reason to champion paper books is the retention capability that scores high with printed books. As reported by The Guardian, a study by lead researcher Anne Mangen of Norway’s Stavanger University found that stories read on e-readers were not remembered as well as when they were read on a more traditional medium. In the same way, print reading is a more in-depth experience. Ziming Liu of San Jose State University conducted a study in the year 2005 where he found out that when people read using screens they spent more time scanning and jumping around to look for keywords and get as much information as they could in the least amount of time. This provided the evidence which proved that reading on screens was a less immersive experience as compared to reading print.
On the contrary, there are many reasons that have made digital reading a reality today. The most agreed reason would be that of accessibility. One can open up an e-book anywhere at any time, be it delay of a flight or waiting for friends in a restaurant. Unlike paper book, it doesn’t have to be carried along. Likewise, it spares readers from deciding which book to take on a trip. One can take a library long with no weight at all. Similarly, there comes a time when your favourite book isn’t available in stores. E-book can save you from that agony as you can download one in literally seconds. This point holds water for a country like Pakistan where about 97 percent of the population doesn’t have access to library.
In addition, digital reading is cost effective. Paper books are pricey, given the cost of publishing and distribution. E-books are affordable in comparison and can be obtained free of cost from various online platforms.
We cannot also ignore the fact that digital reading is eco-accommodating. Reading online saves the environment of the cost of papers that are overwhelmingly used to print books. According to statistics, global consumption of paper has grown 400 percent in the last 40 years. Now nearly 4 billion trees or 35 percent of the total trees cut around the world are used in paper industries on every continent. That equates to about 2.47 million trees cut down every day. With global warming soaring and our planet at the brink of destruction, digital reading provides an applauding option.
Undeniably, reading now has become more interesting and with different platforms like Good Reads, readers can connect to a network, where they can discuss their favourite books and authors. There are apps that can help one keep track of the number of books one reads. These consequently add some flavour to the reading experience.
During a time when technology is inescapable, adhering purely to print would be naive. A balance between both could be the right option. Nonetheless, both hardcore and digital books have noticeable dominance in the realm of reading. What matters most is a reader’s preference. Whether you like the convenience that comes with digital reading or are obsessed with printed book, never give up the habit of reading because it’s one of the few things that make this world beautiful.
AT&T, Nestle, Epic pull ads from YouTube over videos exploiting children
Google-owned YouTube said Thursday it was taking action to close a loophole that enabled users to share comments and links on child pornography over the video-sharing service.
The response came after a YouTube creator this week revealed what he called a “wormhole” that allowed comments and connections on child porn alongside innocuous videos.
“Any content — including comments — that endangers minors is abhorrent and we have clear policies prohibiting this on YouTube,” reported AFP.
“We took immediate action by deleting accounts and channels, reporting illegal activity to authorities and disabling comments on tens of millions of videos that include minors. There’s more to be done, and we continue to work to improve and catch abuse more quickly.”
The move came after Matt Watson, a YouTube creator with some 26,000 subscribers, revealed the workings of what he termed a “wormhole” into a pedophile ring that allowed users to trade social media contacts and links to child porn in YouTube comments.
Watson, who uses the name MattsWhatItIs, added that YouTube’s recommendation algorithm “due to some kind of glitch is actually facilitating this.”
Because ads automatically appear with many YouTube videos, Watson said the actions of the company amounted to “monetizing” the exploitation.
The post by Watson sparked a series of news reports, and according to some media, boycotts of YouTube ads from major firms including Nestle and Disney.
AT&T, which owns the WarnerMedia entertainment unit, confirmed it was pulling its ads from the service.
“Until Google can protect our brand from offensive content of any kind, we are removing all advertising from YouTube,” AT&T said in a statement to AFP.
Epic Games, known for its popular online game Fortnite, said it was suspending ads on YouTube following the news.
“We have paused all pre-roll advertising” on YouTube, a company spokesman said.
“Through our advertising agency, we have reached out to Google/YouTube to determine actions they’ll take to eliminate this type of content from their service.”
The glitch appeared to allow some users to circumvent bans on child porn by Google and other internet platforms.
The incident raised fears of a fresh “brand safety” crisis for YouTube, which lost advertisers last year following revelations that messages appeared on channels promoting conspiracy theories, white nationalism and other objectionable content.
Some progress in Pakistan this week
From many perspectives, this was an eventful week for Pakistan
The Mystery Colour Pink Beholds
Colour stereotype is creation of our own societal values
Dismays and Delights: How Pakistan fared this week?
Such is the course of time, that humans, after mourning a loss, prepare for the next outcome.
Baldness: A man’s dilemma
Embracing the look is not going out of style
Mothers Seeking Careers Struggle to Maintain Identity
Career gives women a sense of being and purpose
Has Technology Disrupted the Essence of Journalism?
Traditional journalism is set to fade in the digital era
The delights of reading!
Reading in print VS e-reading
Hunza Valley: A case of educational enlightenment
Educational initiatives that have enlightened Hunza’s local communities are exemplary for others
‘Victim’ or ‘survivor’- rebuilding narrative of abuse
Calling the individual a ‘sexual abuse survivor’ gives more hope to the wronged
When competition becomes destructive
Does a fierce competitive streak undermine social values?