In a beautiful display of how modern technology can impact people’s lives, a woman has had her voice reconstructed using her appearance on a game show after she lost it to motor neurone disease (MND).
Helen Whitelaw, a 76-year-old lady from Glasgow, developed MND and rapidly lost her voice as the degenerative neurological disorder took hold. Unable to speak without the aid of a machine, Ms Whitelaw hated the robotic voice that she now sounded like, and wished for an alternative.
“The diagnosis was devastating for my whole family,” she told STV news in an interview.
“I wanted people to know what I was saying and I did not want to sound like a machine.”
The family approached a voice reconstruction company, Speak Unique – but by this point, Ms Whitelaw’s voice had deteriorated too far.
Luckily, back in 2019, she entered onto the ITV gameshow Tipping Point, where she won almost £3,000. The show had clips of her happily joking with the host, Ben Shephard, and could be perfect for a voice reconstruction.
This is not common practice, so needless to say the company was apprehensive.
“We were apprehensive about how we could be able to use it,” said Alice Smith, CEO of Speak Unique, in a statement to STV.
“We were sort of joking that she’d definitely be able to say, ‘drop zone four’, as that was such a catchphrase during the show. But we were so pleased that we did manage to get it to work with her appearance on Tipping Point.”
Ms Whitelaw’s voice was recreated from the video recordings, bringing to life her text-to-speech system in a way unlike any other. Her new voice is almost indistinguishable from a human voice, and she claims the company has “given her voice back”.
“It is wonderful being able to talk to people and sound normal and not like a machine,” said Ms Whitelaw after appearing on Good Morning Britain to reunite with Tipping Point host Ben Shepard, show off her new voice, and tell her story.
"My frustration has vanished and I can now have satisfactory conversations with everyone."
Motor neurone disease is an incurable, neurodegenerative condition that affects 2.6 women per 100,000 in the USA. It rose to prominence over the past few decades after legendary scientist Professor Stephen Hawking brought the condition to the attention of the public. In 2014, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge went viral on social media, in which people would throw a bucket of ice water over their heads to raise money and awareness for MND. Although it seemed trivial, the challenge raised over $135 million worldwide and helped contribute to an array of therapies to attempt to help people with MND, including an antibody treatment with ongoing clinical trials.