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With the magic of phoneme analysis, Star Trek: Discovery can still use Majel Barrett’s voice as the Computer

Everybody’s got an opinion on which Star Trek is the best Star Trek. Say what you will about DS9 and Voyager, say what you will about the new movies — what even is red matter, anyway? — I imprinted on Captain Picard, watching TNG alongside my dad when I was a kid.

Each iteration of Star Trek had its own flaws and its own shining moments. They all tend to lean heavily on hand-waving sciencey stuff that makes actual practicing scientists groan and pinch the bridge of their nose. And most of them had something else in common: Gene Roddenberry’s wife voiced the computer. Majel Barrett Roddenberry, often credited as Majel Barrett, voiced LCARS: the Library Computer Access/Retrieval System, or just “the computer” — both in the Star Trek canon and also on an episode of Family Guy. She also played the memorable, indomitable, sometimes insufferable Lwaxana Troi on TNG.

Even after Gene Roddenberry had died, Majel carried on doing new voice acting for the Star Trek universe for almost two decades. She’s been credited posthumously for work that was still in post-production when she died in 2008. Now, after her death, new pieces of content in the canon will be able to carry on using her voice for the computer. A tweet from the official @roddenberry account says that thanks to the magic of phoneme analysis, Majel’s voice could be in Star Trek: Discovery, or even “things like Siri.”

Phonemes are the building blocks of language. More subtle than a syllable, phonemes are the sounds we combine to make syllables and then words. They’re also the answer to using celebrity voices for open-ended applications like Siri. Sure, Majel Barrett Roddenberry or Sigourney Weaver or Morgan Freeman could record themselves saying a lot of different things. But the people that make Siri did it differently. They gave their voice actor a huge list of tongue-twisting sentences that were rich in diverse combinations of phonemes. Then they parsed out the phonemes so that they could apply the right combinatorics to make Siri’s voice realistic instead of robotic.

That’s the idea behind using the voice of the Computer in a new Star Trek. She said a lot of things during her career. With the power of phoneme analysis, something like Siri could use that vocal library to let you, too, experience the joy of having Lwaxana Troi as your co-pilot — whether or not she ever said “stay in the rightmost lane, then merge onto New York route 9 toward Poughkeepsie” in her life.

Unlike Garmin’s extremely disappointing non-Sean-Connery GPS voice pack, phoneme analysis would mean that it was the actual Majel Barrett — the actual computer’s voice — responding to queries or giving directions. Can’t you just hear her saying it in that sharpish, nasal tone, like she’s pretty sure you’re going to be late getting there even if you follow her directions, and that’s all your fault?

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