Tongue in cheek way to understand language

27 July 2008
Posted by Chris Smith.

UK researchers have built an artificial moving tongue to help them to understand the subtleties of human speech.mouthRoger Moore and his student Robin Hofe at the University of Sheffield have dubbed the device Anton, which stands for "ANnimatronic TONgue".  It sits within a plastic skull and is crafted from a silicone material called Ecoflex.  The individual muscles inside a normal tongue have been faithfully recreated and are controlled with fine threads, similar to fishing lines, which are connected to external motors.  Using MRI images of real tongues making different sounds the researchers have programmed their model to simulate these positions, the idea being to measure the relative work being done by the motors, to understand the nature of speech production.

"Human speech is notoriously variable," says Moore.  "You can never make the same sound twice with the same mouth, and we speak completely differently when talking in a noisy bar compared with an intimate chat at home where we're much more likely to mumble."  The point of the research is to better understand this variability in speech production in order to improve the quality of speech recognition systems.

The next step for the team will be to get Anton actually talking, initially by playing sounds from a loudspeaker in his throat, but ultimately by blowing air across some sort of vocal cord.

"Sounds like p and b are made by releasing pressure from behind the tongue, so you can't really model those with a speaker," says Moore. Meanwhile Anton will make his debut at the International Society of Artificial Life conference in Winchester on August 5th.

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