Amazon Alexa will be able to mimic the voices of deceased loved ones

The company announced Wednesday at its annual re: MARS conference, which focuses on AI innovation, that it is working on an update to its Alexa system that would allow the technology to mimic any voice, even a deceased family member.

In a video shown on stage, Amazon (AMZN) showed how, instead of Alexa’s signature voice reading a story to a little boy, it was her grandmother’s voice.

Rohit Prasad, senior vice president of Amazon, said the upgraded system will be able to gather enough voice data from under a minute of audio to make such customization possible, rather than spending hours in a recording studio like you do. in the past. Prasad didn’t elaborate on when this feature might be launched. Amazon declined to comment on a timeline.

The concept comes from Amazon looking for new ways to add more “human attributes” to AI, especially “in these times of ongoing pandemic, when so many of us have lost someone we love,” Prasad said. “While AI can’t eliminate the pain of loss, it can definitely make their memories last.”

Amazon has long used recognizable voices, such as the real voices of Samuel L. Jackson, Melissa McCarthy, and Shaquille O’Neal, to give Alexa a voice. But AI reproductions of people’s voices have also gotten better and better in recent years, particularly with the use of AI and deepfake technology. For example, three lines in Anthony Bourdain’s documentary “Roadrunner” were generated by artificial intelligence, even though they appeared to have been spoken by the deceased media personality. (This particular case caused a stir because it was not made clear in the film that the dialogue was generated by artificial intelligence and had not been approved by Bourdain’s estate.) “We could have a documentary ethics panel on that,” director Morgan Neville told The New Yorker when the film premiered last year.
More recently, actor Val Kilmer, who lost his voice due to throat cancer, partnered with startup Sonantic to create an AI-based talking voice for him in the new film “Top Gun: Maverick”. The company used Kilmer’s archival audio footage to teach an algorithm how to speak like the actor, according to Variety.

Adam Wright, senior analyst at IDC Research, said he sees the value in Amazon’s effort.

“I think Amazon is interested in doing this because they have the capabilities and the technology and they are always looking for ways to elevate the smart assistant and smart home experience,” said Wright. “Whether you drive a deeper connection with Alexa or just become a skill some people dabble with from time to time remains to be seen.”

Amazon’s foray into Alexa’s custom voices may struggle more with the mysterious valley effect: recreating a voice that is so similar to that of a loved one but isn’t quite correct, leading to rejection of real humans.

“There are certainly some risks, as if the voice and resulting AI interactions don’t match up well with loved ones’ memories of that individual,” said Micheal Inouye of ABI Research. “For some, they will find it disturbing or even terrifying, but for others it may be seen in a deeper way, such as the example set by allowing a child to hear the voice of grandparents, perhaps for the first time and in a certain way. . is not a rigid record of the past. “

He believes, however, that the different reactions to announcements like this speak of how society will have to adjust to the promise of innovations and their eventual reality in the years to come.

“We will definitely see more of these types of experiments and trials – and at least until we have a higher level of comfort or these things become more mainstream, there will still be a wide range of responses,” he said.

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