Roger Ebert Tells TED of Battle With Cancer and Computers

Beloved movie critic speaks at conference about challenge of literally finding a new voice after surgeries took his real one away

Speaking through his wife, two colleagues and a computer program named Alex, film critic Roger Ebert told a packed house in Long Beach today about his harrowing battle with thyroid cancer and the technology that has since helped him regain his voice.

 “For most of my life I never gave a second thought to my ability to speak.  It was like breathing,” Ebert told the TED2011 Conference through “Alex,” a voice synthesizer that comes as standard equipment on Apple’s Macintosh computers. “In those days I was living in a fool’s paradise.  After surgeries for cancer took away my ability to speak, I was forced to enter this virtual world in which a computer did some of my living for me.”

Ebert, the longtime columnist for the Chicago Sun Times and co-creator of a series of thumbs-up/thumbs-down movie review television programs that he co-hosted for 30 years on PBS and in syndication, began his presentation with a clip from the classic Stanley Kubrick film “2001: A Space Odyssey.”  In the clip, the computer HAL, which like Ebert came from Urbana, Illinois, protests weakly as astronaut Dave Bowman dismantles it: “I’m afraid, Dave.  My mind is going…”

Ebert clearly dealt with similar fears himself after he left the air in 2006 with a recurrence of salivary cancer and ended up enduring seven life-threatening operations on his carotid artery that kept him in the hospital for a year and left him literally speechless.  He said if he hadn’t still been in the presence of his doctors when the carotid first ruptured — he was playing them Leonard Cohen’s “I’m Your Man” on his iPod prior to checking out — he almost certainly would have died.

In the months that followed, Ebert grew frustrated as he explored different ways to communicate.  He sent many hours of his recorded voice to a Scottish company, which developed a computerized speech program from it, but Ebert ultimately found it to be stilted and unnatural.  “I felt like the hero of that Harlan Ellison story titled ‘I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,’” he said.

Since then, he began using “Alex,” which approximates his old timing and rhythms.  He demonstrated by having Alex tell an old Henny Youngman joke, which got a big laugh from the crowd. 

Since losing his physical voice, Ebert has become an even stronger presence than ever in the virtual world.  “I’ve been able to find out what the buzzwords ‘social network’ really mean,” he said.  I cannot speak; I can only type so fast, but with my computer, I can communicate as well as ever before.  Online, everybody speaks at the same speed.”