Conversational Computing: Speech Synthesis from Assistive Technology to Artificial Intelligence, 1930–1980
Benjamin’s dissertation looks at the history of hand-painted synthetic speech. During the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, before computer algorithms powered the voices of Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri, the only way to reliably produce synthetic speech was with paint and brush. Speech synthesizers worked like player pianos; lines, dots, and dashes were painted on translucent plastic sheets and fed into machines that translated these shapes into sound. Slowly and haltingly, this process developed into the algorithms that create computer speech today. As the voices of virtual assistants and other incarnations of speech technology become ubiquitous, their increasingly human sound conceals the materiality of their mechanical origins.
Before coming to Princeton in 2015, Benjamin studied painting at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (BFA) and Yale University’s School of Art (MFA) and taught art history and art theory at Butler University and Purdue University. Benjamin has received fellowships from the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, the American Society of Church History, the Strong National Museum of Play, and Creative Time. He was an Al Held Affiliated Fellow at the American Academy in Rome and a Fulbright Research Scholar in Zurich, Switzerland. Thanks to a DAAD research grant, he is spending the 2019-20 academic year at Max-Planck-Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte and Universität Regensburg.
His publications include “Mutable Materiality: Illustrations in Kenneth Taylor’s Children’s Bibles,” Material Religion, Volume 10, Issue 3 (September 2014); “Testimony of the Senses: Latter-day Saints and the Civilized Soundscape,” Western Historical Quarterly, Volume 46, Issue 1 (Spring 2015), which won the Western History Association’s Bert M. Fireman Prize; and “Slow Time and Sticky Media: Frank Beard’s Political Cartoons, Chalk Talks, and Hieroglyphic Bibles, 1860–1905,” Winterthur Portfolio, Volume 53, Number 1 (Spring 2019).