Celebrity chef appears in ‘Roadrunner: A movie about Anthony Bourdain’
A documentary filmmaker’s use of audio cloning software to say that late chef Anthony Bourdain never spoke has sparked criticism amid ethical concerns over the use of powerful technology.
“Roadrunner: A Movie About Anthony Bourdain” hit theaters Friday and featured real-life footage of the beloved chef and world-famous TV presenter before he died in 2018. But director Morgan Neville created a piece of dialogue for The New Yorker using artificial intelligence technology.
This has rekindled the debate about the future of voice cloning technology, not only in entertainment, but also in politics and in a rapidly growing commercial sector dedicated to transforming text into real human speech.
“Unverified audio cloning is a slippery slope,” Andrew Mason, founder and CEO of audio manufacturer Descript, said in a blog post Friday. “When you enter a world where you have a subjective judgment that private business can be ethical, it won’t take long for something to happen.”
Anthony Bourdain’s voice-cloning for new doc called into question: It’s ‘a slippery slope’:
Prior to this week, much of the public debate surrounding such technologies focused on the potential to create deep fraud and increase misinformation and political conflict using artificial audio and/or video that was difficult to detect.
But Mason, who previously founded and runs Groupon, said in an interview that Descript has repeatedly turned down requests for audio, including “people who have lost someone and are grieving.”
“We don’t have much to judge,” he said. “We’re just saying there must be some bright streaks in good and bad things.”
Angry and anxious responses to voice cloning in the Bourdain case reflect expectations and issues with exposure and consent. He said validation and disclosure of the technological load in the workplace is necessary. Instead, viewers were surprised—first the fact of the audio fraud, then the director’s refusal of any ethical questions—and voiced their displeasure online.
“It also touches on our fears of death and our thoughts on how people can control our digital identity and cause us to say or do something without doing anything to stop us,” Gregory said.
Neville did not specify what tool he used to recreate Bourdain’s voice, but said he used it for several sentences that Bourdain wrote but did not say out loud.
“With the blessing of his property and its literary representative, we used artificial intelligence technology,” Neville said in a written statement. “It was a modern storytelling technique that I used in a few places where I thought it was important to bring Tony’s words to life.”
Neville also told GQ magazine that Bourdain had approval from his widow and literary director. The chef’s wife, Ottavia Busia, responded with a tweet: “Of course I wasn’t the one who said Tony would be cool with this.”
While tech giants like Microsoft, Google, and Amazon dominate text-to-speech research, there are now a number of startups offering voice cloning software like Descript. Chat is used from customer service to chatbots, video games and podcasts.
“We have very strong policies on what can be done on our platform,” said Zohaib Ahmed, founder and CEO of Resemble AI, which sells custom AI sound generator services from one of the Toronto companies. “When creating a voice clone, permission must be obtained from the person who owns the voice.”
Ahmed said the rare cases where he allowed voice cloning after his death were for academic research, including a project that worked with the voice of Winston Churchill, who died in 1965.
A more common commercial use, Ahmed said, is to edit a TV commercial recorded by real voice actors and then adapt it to the region by adding a local reference. He said he can speak a different language by dubbing in one language to dub anime movies and other videos.
He compared it to past innovations in entertainment, from stunts to green screen technology.
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