Amazon Alexa can mimic the voices of deceased loved ones

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

In a video shown on stage, Amazon AMZN demonstrated how, instead of Alexa’s signature voice reading a story to a young boy, it was his grandmother’s voice.

Rohit Prasad, a senior vice president of Amazon, said the updated system will be able to collect enough voice data from less than a minute of audio to allow for personalization like this, rather than someone spending hours in a recording studio. like how it was done in the past. Prasad did not elaborate on when this position might start. Amazon declined to comment on a timeline.

The concept stems from the fact that Amazon is looking for new ways to add more “human qualities” to artificial intelligence, especially “in these times of the ongoing pandemic where so many of us have lost someone we love” Prasad said. “While AI can’t take away that pain of loss, it can certainly make their memories last.”

Amazon has long used recognizable voices, such as the real-life voices of Samuel L. Jackson, Melissa McCarthy and Shaquille O’Neal, to voice Alexa. But AI recreations of people’s voices have also gotten better in recent years, especially through the use of AI and deepfake technology. For example, three lines in the Anthony Bourdain documentary “Roadrunner” were generated by AI, even though it sounded like they were being said by the late media personality. (This particular case caused a stir because it was not made clear in the film that the dialogue was AI-generated and not endorsed by Bourdain’s estate). “We can have a documentary ethics panel on it later,” director Morgan Neville told The New Yorker when the film debuted last year.
More recently, actor Val Kilmer, who lost his voice to throat cancer, teamed up with startup Sonantic to create an AI-powered speaking voice for him in the new movie “Top Gun: Maverick.” The company used archived audio footage of Kilmer to teach an algorithm to speak like the actor, according to Variety

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

“I think Amazon is interested in this because they have the capabilities and technology, and they’re always looking for ways to improve the smart assistant and smart home experience,” Wright said. “Whether it drives a deeper connection with Alexa, or just becomes a skill some people indulge in from time to time, remains to be seen.”

Amazon’s foray into personalized Alexa voices may struggle most with the uncanny valley effect — recreating a voice so similar to that of a loved one, but not quite right, leading to rejection from real people.

“There are certainly some risks, for example if the voice and the resulting AI interactions don’t match well with the loved ones’ memories of that person,” said ABI Research’s Micheal Inouye. “For some they will see this as creepy or downright terrible, but for others it can be looked at in a deeper way, such as the example set by letting a child hear the voice of their grandparents, perhaps for the first time and on a way that’s not a strict recording from the past.”

However, the mixed reactions to these kinds of announcements show how society will have to adapt in the coming years to the promise of innovations and their ultimate reality.

“We’re definitely going to see more experiments and trials like this — and at least until we get a higher level of comfort or these things become more mainstream, there’s still going to be a wide range of reactions,” he said.

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