Why the Anthony Bourdain voice cloning creeps people out

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The revelation that a documentary filmmaker used voice-cloning software to form the late chef Anthony Bourdain to say words he never spoke has drawn criticism amid ethical concerns about the use of the powerful technology. The movie “Roadrunner: a movie About Anthony Bourdain” appeared in cinemas Friday and mostly features real footage of the beloved celebrity chef and globe-trotting television host before he died in 2018. But its director, Morgan Neville, told The New Yorker that a snippet of dialogue was created using AI technology.

That’s renewed a debate about the longer-term of voice-cloning technology, not just within the entertainment world but in politics and a fast-growing commercial sector dedicated to reworking text into realistic-sounding human speech. “Unapproved voice cloning may be a slippery slope,” said Andrew Mason, the founder, and CEO of voice generator Descript, during a blog post-Friday. “As soon as you get into a world where you’re making subjective judgment calls about whether specific cases are often ethical, it won’t be long before anything goes.”

Before in the week, most of the general public controversy around such technologies focused on the creation of hard-to-detect deepfakes using simulated audio and/or video and their potential to fuel misinformation and political conflict. But Mason, who previously founded and led Groupon, said in an interview that Descript has repeatedly rejected requests to bring back a voice, including from “people who have lost someone and are grieving.” “It’s not however much that we would like to pass judgment,” he said. “We’re just saying you’ve got to possess some bright lines in what’s OK and what’s not.”

Angry and uncomfortable reactions to the voice cloning within the Bourdain case reflect expectations and problems with disclosure and consent, said Sam Gregory, program director at Witness, a nonprofit performing on using video technology for human rights. Obtaining consent and disclosing the techno-wizardry at work would are appropriate, he said. Instead, viewers were stunned — first by the very fact of the audio fakery, then by the director’s seeming dismissal of any ethical questions — and expressed their displeasure online.

“It touches also on our fears of death and concepts about the way people could take hold of our digital likeness and make us say or do things with no thanks to stopping it,” Gregory said. Neville hasn’t identified what tool he wont to recreate Bourdain’s voice but said he used it for a couple of sentences that Bourdain wrote but never said aloud. “With the blessing of his estate and agent we used AI technology,” Neville said during a written statement. “It was a contemporary storytelling technique that I utilized in a couple of places where i assumed it had been important to form Tony’s words wake up .” Neville also told GQ magazine that he got the approval of Bourdain’s widow and literary executor. The chef’s wife, Ottavia Busia, responded by tweet: “I certainly wasn’t the one who said Tony would are cool thereupon .”

Although tech giants like Microsoft, Google, and Amazon have dominated text-to-speech research, there are now also a variety of startups like Descript that provide voice-cloning software. The uses range from talking customer service chatbots to video games and podcasting. Many of those voice cloning companies prominently feature an ethics policy on their website that explains the terms of use. Of nearly a dozen firms contacted by The Associated Press, many said they didn’t recreate Bourdain’s voice and wouldn’t have if asked. Others didn’t respond. “We have pretty strong policies around what is often done on our platform,” said Zohaib Ahmed, founder, and CEO of Resemble AI, a Toronto company that sells a custom AI voice generator service. “When you’re creating a voice clone, it requires consent from whoever’s voice it’s .”

Ahmed said the rare occasions where he’s allowed some posthumous voice cloning were for tutorial research, including a project working with the voice of Churchill, who died in 1965. Ahmed said a more common commercial use is to edit a TV ad recorded by real voice actors then customize it to a neighborhood by adding an area reference. It’s also won’t to dub anime movies and other videos, by taking a voice in one language and making it speak a special language, he said. He compared it to past innovations within the show business, from stunt actors to greenscreen technology.

Just seconds or minutes of recorded human speech can help teach an AI system to get its own synthetic speech, though getting it to capture the clarity and rhythm of Anthony Bourdain’s voice probably took tons more training, said Rupal Patel, a professor at Northeastern University who runs another voice-generating company, VocaliD, that focuses on customer service chatbots.

“If you wanted it to talk adore him, you’d need tons, maybe 90 minutes of excellent, clean data,” she said. “You’re building an algorithm that learns to talk like Bourdain spoke.” Neville is an acclaimed documentarian who also directed the Fred Rogers portrait “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and therefore the Oscar-winning “20 Feet From Stardom.” He began making his latest movie in 2019, quite a year after Bourdain’s death by suicide in June 2018. Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material might not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without permission.

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