Amazon Alexa will be able to mimic the voices of loved ones who have died

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The company announced Wednesday during its annual re:MARS conference, which focuses on innovations in the field of artificial intelligence, that it is working on an update to its Alexa system that would allow the technology to mimic any voice, even that of 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 at Amazon, said the updated system will be able to collect enough speech data from less than a minute of audio to enable such personalization, rather than having someone spend hours in a recording studio, how it is done in the past. Prasad did not elaborate on when this feature might launch. Amazon declined to comment on a timeline.

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

Amazon has long used recognizable voices, like the real voices of Samuel L. Jackson, Melissa McCarthy, and Shaquille O’Neal, to speak to Alexa. But AI recreations of human voices have also improved over the past few years, particularly through the use of AI and deepfake technology. For example, three lines in the Anthony Bourdain documentary “Roadrunner” were AI generated, although it sounded like they were said by the late media personality. (This particular case drew attention because the film failed to clarify that the dialogue was AI generated and not sanctioned by Bourdain’s estate). “We can have a documentary ethics panel on this later,” said director Morgan Neville said The New Yorker when the film debuted last year.
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 Kilmer’s archived audio to teach an algorithm how to speak like the actor diversity.

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

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

Amazon’s foray into personalized Alexa voices may struggle most with the uncanny valley effect — replicating 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, such as when the voice and resulting AI interactions do not match well with loved ones’ memories of that person,” said Micheal Inouye of ABI Research. “For some they will see this as creepy or downright horrifying, but for others it could be viewed in a more profound way, such as the example set by allowing a child to hear their grandparents’ voice, perhaps for first time and in a way that’s not a strict record from the past.”

However, he believes the mixed reactions to announcements like these point to how society must adjust to the promise of innovation and its eventual reality in the years to come.

“We’re definitely going to see more of these kinds of experiments and trials — and at least until we reach 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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