Features

Clearer, faster, poorer

National | Computers improve their language, chips increase speed, but governors lobby for Internet taxes

Issue: "Balancing act," Sept. 8, 2001

Fluent computers
Ever hear a computer talk? Robotic voices and pre-recorded human speech have been standard for years, appearing everywhere from video games to customer service lines. Many futurists dream of a day when people will more easily converse with computers, but real-world developments have been slow in coming. AT&T Labs now boasts of new text-to-speech software, dubbed AT&T Natural Voices, that makes realistic-sounding computerized voices. The company is marketing it to call centers, auto makers, and broadcasters. AT&T cites an estimate by McKinsey and Co., a management consulting firm, that text-to-speech software could command $1 billion in sales within five years. One analyst who tried the product says it is an improvement over previous computer voices, but still far from reliable. Seamus McAteer of Jupiter Media Metrix said Natural Voices had trouble reading e-mail, especially with uncommon words and colloquialisms. "I'm fearful that we're going to see it overused, being applied to things where it's not really suited," he said. The software comes with three standard voices. Optionally, a user can create "fonts," or custom voices, by having a recording analyzed by a super computer. Thus someone can create a digitalized mimic of another person, even someone no longer living. Advertisers could resurrect a dead celebrity's voice to pitch modern-day products. The potential for speech synthesis is like that of traditional graphics and sound editing. It allows new forms of creativity while leaving a door open for abuse. The need for speed
Intel set its latest chip speed milestone with the Pentium 4. It runs at 2 gigahertz, or 2 billion cycles per second. Computers using the latest chip are heading to market with a price tag of around $1,500. The PC industry hopes the Pentium 4, or P4, will make the latest models more attractive and ease the current slump. It arrives just in time for another new generation release: Microsoft's new Windows XP operating system. "Is a P4 the fastest thing on the planet? Yes, unquestionably across the board," boasted Louis Burns, general manager of Intel's desktop platforms group. He predicted that the Pentium architecture could be stretched up to speeds of 10 gigahertz in the next 5 to 10 years. The P4 introduction puts pressure on competitor AMD, which gained market share from Intel in recent years but suffered because of the economy and a brutal price war. Its chips have sold well on consumer machines but have lagged behind in the business market. The microchip world runs on an industry standard known as Moore's Law, which says the power on a silicon wafer doubles about every 18 months. Faster speeds mean less time wasted while a computer computes complex tasks, like drawing animation on a screen or running several programs at once. Faster speeds may be even more useful in such gadgets as cell phones, games, and handheld computers. The chip power in these devices tends to follow behind PCs, sometimes even using the same technology. Web's masters?
The Internet tax debate is quietly building as numerous governors are calling on Congress to allow online sales taxes. "The sales tax system is a mess," Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt said, speaking on behalf of 42 state and two territorial governors. The group supports a moratorium on taxing Internet access, but they want the ability to tax online purchases. Mr. Leavitt said that he envisions states providing software that would automatically calculate and remit sales taxes on Internet sales. Any such plan would require congressional approval and substantial agreement between state governments. "It's very difficult to bring 50 states together, but if they don't, they're going to get nothing." Sales tax proponents claim that states lose money when people shop over the Internet instead of through local stores. Critics say that out-of-state businesses aren't represented by the state's legislature and don't use its services. They also say that states shouldn't hamper a new industry with a tax plan that would likely be unwieldy and tend to drive away customers. Virginia's Jim Gilmore, Colorado's Bill Owens, and five other governors did not sign the document. "We've just had a load of dot-coms bite the dust despite a lot of promise early on. It's wrong to put this burden on a fledgling industry," Gilmore spokesman Reed Boatright said. Also under scrutiny is whether catalogs and other traditional forms of mail order shopping will be forced to collect the proposed sales taxes on out-of-state customers.

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