Amazon’s Alexa Will Soon be Able to Use a Dead Person’s Voice

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(Photo: Lazar Gugleta/Unsplash) Alexa, Amazon’s widely-critiqued yet still widely-loved smart speaker, will soon be able to use the voice of a deceased loved one. All it will need is a one-minute recording of the person you lost.

Amazon introduced the technology at Amazon re:MARS 2022, its annual AI event centered around machine learning, automation, robotics, and space. Alexa AI head scientist Rohit Prasad referred to the upcoming feature as a way to remember friends and family members who have passed away. 

“While AI can’t eliminate the pain of loss, it can definitely make their memories last,” Prasad said. 

Prasad demonstrated the feature using a video of a child asking Alexa if his grandmother could finish reading him a story. In its regular Alexa voice, the smart speaker obliged; then the grandmother’s voice took over as the child flipped through his own copy of The Wizard of Oz. Though of course there’s no way for the viewer to know what the woman’s real voice actually sounds like, the grandmother’s synthesized voice admittedly sounded quite natural, speaking with the cadence of your average bedtime story reader. 

It’s important to note the context in which this technology was introduced. Amazon led into its announcement of the voice synthesizing feature by emphasizing the “companionship relationship” many people have with Alexa. “In this companionship role, human attributes like empathy and affect are key for building trust,” Prasad said. He went on to explain that this has become increasingly important throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the byproduct of which has been significant physical and social isolation. But why would Amazon be so invested in building companionship and empathy between Alexa and its users?

(Photo: Andres Urena/Unsplash)

The technology is reminiscent of that used to bring the likeness of deceased movie stars into new media. James Dean—or a CGI version of him—is expected to “star” in an upcoming film despite having died decades ago. A fashion magazine recently sparked confusion and outrage after featuring a CGI “photoshoot” of Marilyn Monroe. Some argue that because the actual person being imitated never agreed to participate in such media, it isn’t right to use and manipulate their likeness; others argue that because the stars are deceased, their likenesses are essentially fair game. 

It’s also worth questioning whether Alexa’s upcoming voice synthesizing feature could be used to imitate the voices of living people. It’s doubtful that Alexa would know whether the recording you’ve offered is of a living person or someone who’s passed away. Beyond using the feature to prank someone who’s still around (as, I’ll admit, I would probably do), the imitation of a living person’s voice could be used to thwart all sorts of security measures or otherwise “hack” someone’s smart home. Given the feature’s recent announcement, however, these concerns have yet to be addressed. 

As of now, it’s unclear whether this feature is still in the research phase or if it will roll out to everyday Alexa users soon.

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