We have only one more decade until we reach Stanley Kubrick's 2001, and we seem a long way from HAL, the recalcitrant computer.
Or maybe not.
I just received a program called Monologue ($149 list) from a company called First Byte (3100 S. Harbor Blvd., Suite 150, Santa Ana, Calif. 92704;  432-1740), which invests personal computers with the power of speech.
Why would you want your computer to talk? The company gives several good reasons. If you work with spreadsheets, you can have Monologue read out to you rows or columns so you can check them against a master list. Missing digits and misplaced decimals are much easier to catch this way, and the checking goes faster and more accurately than comparing screen to paper.
Monologue can read aloud electronic mail. You can listen while you are using your eyes and hands for other tasks. (I'm sure the company envisions the incredibly efficient worker bee who also builds a data base while composing a new company jingle. I, on the other hand, see people listening to their mail while spreading marmalade on an English muffin.)
Those who are proofreading critical text can have Monologue read out the paragraphs. By hearing the text, you might catch missing text and awkward or incorrect uses of grammar that might otherwise be overlooked. Your ears can assist your eyes. Programmers, too, may find hearing their programming read aloud to be useful in catching errors.
The program also can help the disabled speak by turning a computer into a communication tool. Another use along the same lines that the company does not mention (but the potential is there) is to assist people with poor eyesight. If you can see well enough to block the text that you want read aloud (using either cursor keys or a mouse), then this tool could be useful. The program would need another command or two to bypass the need to block, which would allow blind people to use Monologue.
Monologue can use the speaker that comes with your computer (that's how you hear the beeps and boops), or you can connect internal or external "speech accessories" (speakers), including Sound Blaster from Creative Labs, Voice Master and Speech Thing from Covox, IBM Audio Capture/Playback Adapter, IBM PS/1 Audio card, and the Tandy 1000 TL, SL, RL, TL2 and SL2.
I found that the speaker in my Toshiba 3100SX laptop (a machine of which I'm quite fond) did not offer enough volume, but the internal speaker on my desktop Kaypro 286 was quite good for this use.
The big hardware requirement for Monologue is RAM memory. The program is memory resident. In that way, you can have Monologue go to work while you are using another program. The manual says Monologue will consume 140K to 220K, depending on the speech driver selected. When I tested my memory, however, Monologue used 273K of RAM. WordPerfect 5.0 or 5.1, then, did not run on a 640K machine while Monologue was resident.
In other words, because Monologue uses so much memory (which only makes sense considering the complexities of speech), you will need to have more memory beyond the standard 640K of most computers. Monologue supports both extended (XMS) and expanded (EMS) memory.
Monologue converts any text or ASCII data into speech using a set of phonetic translation and pronunciation rules. Nearly everything I tried was correctly pronounced. The few words it mispronounced could be added to the program's exception dictionary, where its pronunciation can be corrected.
The voice actually sounds good. Users can adjust the pitch, speed, volume, treble and bass tones, and choose between a male and female voice.
I'm quite impressed with its ease of installation and use; I was working with Monologue within 10 minutes. The 42-page manual, lucid and well-written, answered all my questions.