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Better Than WaveNet: Meet WellSaid

My friends trained a computer to speak in a completely humanlike voice and it sounds better than Google’s leading text-to-speech engine WaveNet.

Would you believe me if I told you that the voiceover in this video was not produced by a human?

Seriously. Go give it a listen. I’ll wait….

Did you listen to it yet?

Great.

Now, you probably guessed it by now, but, yep… that entire two minute video was narrated using artificial intelligence.

As in…a human did not speak a word in that video. A machine learning program generated the entire narration.

You just heard a demo of one of the most advanced text-to-speech programs in existence today…built by two guys you’ve never heard of in Seattle.

Their program “reads” sentences off of a script and produces the sounds that it believes a human would make if they were reading the same sentences aloud.

(Okay that’s a little vague, but you get the general idea…)

The result is what you just heard: a humanlike voiceover track generated entirely using artificial intelligence.

Pretty cool, right?

Their technology rivals the bleeding-edge research being done at companies like Google.

Seriously, here’s a side-by-side demo of Google’s best-of-market WaveNet voice reading the same paragraph as two of WellSaid’s voices: WellSaid vs. Google.

Google is working on better voices (look up “Tacotron 2”), but they’re not commercially available yet — also, when you read the “fine print” in the research papers themselves you’ll realize that their technology has far more limitations than meets the…ear.

“So, all of that’s cool, but what would people even use this technology for?”

Text-to-speech technology isn’t new, but text-to-speech technology that doesn’t sound like somebody repeatedly hitting a dumpster with a baseball bat is.

There are tons of exciting use cases for a text-to-speech service that can cross the “uncanny valley” and actually speak like a real person.

My friends are focused on giving video and content producers access to instant, cheap, AI-generated voiceovers.

But that’s just one use case… there are tons more exciting things you can do with this stuff.

From “serious” use cases like:

  • Helping visually-impaired people by reading just about any written content in an enjoyable, humanlike voice

  • Replacing the crappy Hawking-like voice with a “real” voice for people who have lost their ability to speak

  • Creating a fully automated call center that can ask questions and have dynamic conversations with customers

  • Replace all of the automated reminder / alert systems in airports, train stations, etc. with a voice that does not sound like death itself

And there are plenty of fun use cases:

  • Instantly convert any blog post on the internet into a mini-audiobook narrated by a professional “voice artist”

  • Add a studio-quality voiceover to your home movies (you could have the movie trailer voice guy narrate your home movie)

  • Have Morgan Freeman read you any book on your Kindle…or your emails, or your texts

  • If you’re an indie game developer, you could add hundreds of different voiceovers to your game for a fraction of the cost of traditional voice artists

There are tons more use cases, but you get the idea…

“Cool. This is pretty wild. What can I do with this knowledge?”

Errr, well, I mostly just thought this was interesting and that lots of the Stew’s Letter readership would find this sort of thing intellectually stimulating.

But, more practically:

  • If you want to play around and generate some AI voiceovers, their beta is live and you can request access here (click “Join Beta”)

  • If you’re a programmer, they are hiring (see “WellSaid Labs” postings)

  • If you’re just curious about the technology, they post lots of demos on their YouTube page

The future is here… and it’s far more wonderful and weird than any of us probably imagined.


This post was first sent in a Stew’s Letter, a weekly-ish email for ambitious, curious people. You can join below:

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“I Think I Like a Speckled Ax Best”

Have you ever done something so moronic that you’ve found it difficult to believe that any human, much less the human whose conscious experience you happen to occupy, could be so stupid?

For example, I attempted — and failed — to cook four Trader Joe’s chicken nuggets yesterday afternoon. The instructions fit into one sentence:

Preheat oven to 425 degrees and place nuggets on center rack for 20 minutes (this is impossible to screw up, you dunce).

Incredibly, I managed to screw it up. I neglected to set a timer, started to work on other things, and about 45 minutes later was notified that lunch was ready as a cloud of smoke and the smell of scorched chicken nugget filled the apartment. Classic.

This sort of thing happens all the time. I am terrible with navigating the minutia of daily life and always have been. I lose keys, burn chicken nuggets, pour myself drinks and forget about them, and email myself reminders only to be surprised that I have a new email after I hit “send.” I live inside my own head, caught in whatever idea happens to hold the reigns at that moment, which often diverts my attention from whatever is unfolding right in front of me.

My natural impulse over the years has been to work hard at “fixing” this glaring inadequacy in my character and to become more functional in the elements of life that I consider boring but necessary. But after years of consciously trying to improve this side of myself, I have made essentially zero progress.

“I wished to live without committing any fault at any time”

I felt pretty frustrated until recently reading the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. One of Franklin’s many pursuits in life was to obtain a perfect moral character. He set a personal goal for himself to essentially emulate a character like Christ and live without any faults whatsoever at any time.

Franklin created a spreadsheet that tracked thirteen virtues, ranging from “Temperance” to “Humility,” which he would review each day and note wherever he fell short or failed. If he drank one mojito too many, for example, he’d write an “x” in that day’s Temperance column. The next day, he’d know to keep an eye on his booze consumption.

After doing this exercise for years, he realized that while he became an overall much better person and even obtained near-perfection in certain virtues, he fell terribly short in others. In particular, he never made much progress in the virtue of “Order” which he defined as “let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.”

In his words:

Order…I found extremely difficult to acquire….This article, therefore, cost me so much painful attention, and my faults in it vexed me so much, and I made so little progress in amendment, and have such frequent relapses, that I was almost ready to give up the attempt and content myself with a faulty character in that respect.

Not one to readily admit defeat, he asked himself if it was worth giving his more stubborn flaws extra attention. After all, isn’t the whole point of self-improvement to acknowledge and battle our slothful, fixed nature head-on? Shouldn’t we exert ourselves twice as hard in fixing those flaws that seem the least likely to change?

Or should we instead get comfortable with the idea that we are flawed in our own particular way and that each of us may have only so much room to improve in certain areas?

Ultimately, Franklin answers with the story of the man who bought an ax from a blacksmith and requested that its surface be made as bright as the edge:

The smith consented to grind it bright for him if he would turn the wheel; he turned, while the smith pressed the broad face of the ax hard and heavily on the stone, which made the turning of it very fatiguing.

The man came every now and then from the wheel to see how the work went on, and at length would take his ax as it was, without farther grinding. “No,” said the smith; “turn on, turn on; we shall have it bright by and by; as yet, it is only speckled.”

“Yes,” says the man, “but I think I like a a speckled ax best.”

And I a scorched nugget.


This post was first sent in a Stew’s Letter, a weekly-ish email for ambitious, curious people. You can join below:

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Wake Up, Sheeples: Evolution Has Made Us Conformists

No Man Is An Island

We like to believe that our thoughts and emotions are ours and ours alone. We are independent entities capable of thinking for ourselves and rising above the groupthink and mania all around us.

Had we been in Germany in the 1930’s, we tell ourselves that we would have seen the evil of the Nazi party for what it was and refused to get swept away in the madness. Had we been in the South in the 60’s, we would have rejected the racist worldview of our peers and marched alongside the civil rights leaders of the day. Had we been at a Pitbull concert last week, we wouldn’t have let an energetic crowd trick us into believing the guy actually has talent.

We are not sheep, we like to believe. We are immune to the manic and irrational behavior of groups. We are beacons of rationality and independent thought. It’s ridiculous that nobody has made a statue of us yet. We are Athena herself reincarnate.

But, what if that’s not even close to being true? What if we’re blind to a deep impulse that makes us more dependent on each other than we’d like to admit?

Humans have a deep impulse to mirror the behavior of the group, and it kind of makes sense

Robert Greene dropped a book this week, The Laws of Human Nature, that I’m convinced will be talked about for the next 30 years. For those unfamiliar with Robert, he spends years upon years writing his books, most of which are about human psychology. The Laws of Human Nature is the culmination of more than 20 years of what he’s learned about how humans behave and think.

One chapter that was particularly striking described the impulse that humans have to conform and mirror the behaviors of those around them. Being a conformist tends to get a bad rap these days, but Greene gives the behavior a rational basis in our evolution as a species. While it’s far from the only reason we tend to behave like others, it’s not one that’s written about often.

To survive, humans needed to mirror the emotions of others

If you and your homies went hunting in the Savannah 50,000 years ago and somebody in the group saw a scary-ass tiger, teeth out, charging directly at the group, time was not on your side. Whoever saw the tiger didn’t have the luxury of calling a team meeting, “hey gang, everybody have a minute? I was hoping to convince each of you that a tiger is rapidly approaching and is about to remove our faces from our bodies.”

It was crucial that the group immediately feel the same fear of whoever witnessed the threat. The quicker the fear could spread through the group, the sooner everybody could react and the more likely they all were to survive. Species that could share emotions, rather than letting them remain the experience of a single individual, maintained an evolutionary advantage in certain contexts.

Our emotional lives are deeply intertwined with those of others

This impulse to mirror the emotions of others clearly goes beyond life-or-death situations. If we’re in conversation with somebody who’s good-spirited and energetic, for example, we’ll notice our own mood gradually lift.  And when somebody is being a Negative Nancy, we can watch as their toxic attitude gradually infects those around them. Emotions – some strong, some subtle – often ripple through groups rather than staying bottled up in any individual.

What is true of emotions also seems true of opinions and worldviews

Imagine we’ve been momentarily infected with a negative attitude after an encounter with a walking, talking bummer of a human being. We’re exhausted and de-energized and our emotions often spill over into our worldview. Far from just “feeling tired,” our understanding of reality is momentarily altered. Our beliefs about the future, for example, are likely to be different if we’re feeling exhausted and beaten up than if we’re feeling juiced up and thrilled to be alive.

So, emotions influence our worldview and our emotions are often not really “ours,” per se. We are temporary hosts for various states of conciousness, and very often their corresponding worldviews, as they ripple through a group.

This propensity to absorb and transmit emotions is deeply embedded in our nature, making us far less of an island than we might imagine.

Today, emotions can ripple through society ludicrously fast and at a ludicrous scale

Over the past few decades, our role as an Emotion Transmission Beacon has been able to play out at an increasingly enormous scale.

Today, somebody can experience some horrific injustice, post a message or video on Twitter, and within hours, righteous outrage will radiate through millions of other people — much in the same way that the fear of the point man in the Savannah radiated through his tribe members.

Our emotional lives are deeply intertwined and we are not quite the independent actors we’d like to imagine.

We are nodes in a deeply interconnected web of emotions that ebb and flow between all human beings.


This post was first sent in a Stew’s Letter, a weekly-ish email for ambitious, curious people. You can join below:

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Fire Quote

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Fire Quote

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Fire Tweet – (From Stew’s Letter Issue 2)

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Stew’s Letter – Issue One

The first-ever Stew’s Letter just went out. You can read it here.

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Why virtual reality matters

For most of human history, knowledge was scarce.

It was often stored in people’s brains and, occasionally on stone or paper, both of which were easily lost or destroyed.

It was often transmitted orally, always one game of “telephone” away from being lost or degraded.

Knowledge was highly localized; and knowledge that did survive was often held behind closed doors and only accessible by a privileged few.

To read Confucius, to know that he even existed, you’d not only need to be in the East, but you’d need to be friendly with the dynasty guarding the library of Eastern knowledge.

Two millennia later, our relationship with knowledge has been revolutionized by the internet.

Rather than being stuck in a single library or a single human mind, most knowledge that lives on the internet is immediately available to almost any human, largely unencumbered by gatekeepers and geography.

Today, experiences are very similar to pre-internet knowledge.

Experiences are highly local. To experience a sailing trip in the Mediterranean, you must go there.

Experiences are protected by gatekeepers. You can’t experience a concert from the front row without buying the tickets.

Experiences are ephemeral. The circumstances which allowed a specific experience may never arise again.

Today, we are at the dawn of building technology which will allow us to do for experiences what the internet did for information.

Virtual reality will democratize experiences.

People will be able to experience what it’s like to sail through the Mediterranean without leaving their living room.

It’s going to be wild.

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A player, B player

As we grew our team at MassRoots, we frequently reiterated the need to exclusively hire “A Players,” but we never actually articulated what exactly that meant.

When somebody pointed this out during an all-hands, we created the following list to help define the types of people we wanted on our team.

Hopefully it can help you frame the difference between somebody who is adequate and somebody who is exceptional.

  • A Players contribute 5-10x their value. B Players contribute exactly what they’re paid for, sometimes less.

  • A Players are pulled towards learning, growth, hard work. B Players need to be pushed.

  • A Players crave mentorship. B Players crave management.

  • A Players are gratified by hard work. B Players never miss a happy hour.

  • A Players are like air support. B Players are like speed bumps.

  • A Players sometimes complain, but always offer solutions. B Players never take responsibility.

  • A Players do not want to work with B Players.

  • A Players feel physical pain when work is subpar. B Players make no distinction between “done” and “done well.”

  • A Players care about the people who consume their work. B Players view them as a burden.

  • A Players say “we.” B Players say “you,” “they,” and “I.”

  • A Players hate carelessness. B Players hate the extra work that diligence requires.

  • A Players own. B Players blame.

  • A Players aspire to make everybody else’s job easier. B Players aspire for others to make their job easier.

  • A Players offer alternatives. B Players can only explain why it won’t work.

  • A Players give a shit. B Players can’t hide their apathy.

Oh, and one more: A Players will drop a comment and share what they disagree with 🙂

Kobe Bryant was the ultimate A Player.
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Thank You

Dear reader,

This is a bit embarrassing, but my Nest camera caught my reaction as I saw you subscribe (give it ~5 seconds).

I thought you might enjoy…

Welcome.

See you next Sunday.

Love,
Stew