- An Amazon executive said his team has been teaching Alexa to mimic voices with short audio clips.
- The capability can help people remember loved ones who have died from COVID-19, the executive said.
- Many Twitter users have raised concerns about possible abuse of the technology.
Amazon is teaching Alexa to imitate the voice of anyone, living or dead, with just a one-minute recording of that voice.
Rohit Prasad, Amazon’s lead scientist for Alexa, said at a live event on Wednesday that his team has been instructing Alexa to pick up a voice from a short audio clip and turn it into a longer audio output. Prasad was presenting at Amazon’s re:Mars conference in Las Vegas.
He showed a short video of how people could use Alexa’s voice change capability in real life. In the clip, a child asks, “Alexa, can Grandma finish reading the Wizard of Oz to me?”
The smart speaker confirmed the request in its default cheery voice, then switched to a less robotic voice that narrated an excerpt from the children’s novel.
“This required inventions where we had to learn how to produce a high-quality voice with less than a minute of recording time instead of hours of recording time in the studio. The way we made this possible was by framing the problem as a conversion task of voice and not a path of speech generation,” Prasad said.
Prasad said Alexa’s ability to impersonate familiar voices is particularly crucial now as many people have lost loved ones to COVID-19.
“While AI can’t take away the pain of loss, it can definitely make your memories live on,” he said.
Prasad did not say when Amazon will introduce Alexa’s voice imitation capability to the public. An Amazon spokesperson declined Insider’s request for comment.
Alexa’s ability to mimic voices is a form of artificial intelligence (AI) that Prasad called “generalizable intelligence.” The ability helps Alexa adapt to different situations and learn new insights from experiences with little supervision, he said.
It’s different from “all-knowing, all-possible” artificial general intelligence, or AGI, which aims to understand human tasks and intellect to solve problems, Prasad said. Organizations like Google’s DeepMind and Elon Musk’s OpenAI are focused on perfecting AGI.
Amazon isn’t the only company working on developing technology that can mimic human voices. Last month, Japanese toymaker Takara Tomy unveiled an egg-shaped voice-changing device called Coemo that copies the voices of adults and uses them to read stories to children.
Many are scared by AI’s ability to mimic human functions
On Twitter, people were divided over Amazon’s plans to teach Alexa to mimic human voices.
One person, using the Twitter handle “Maltese Mama,” said Alexa could keep her parents, who have dementia and live far away, mentally active. “We have caregivers who come every day, but to be able to max (sic) or even better attend with a video call is amazing,” they said. tweeted in response to Prasad’s presentation.
But many others expressed concern about the technology.
“Umm, so when will criminals be able to use it to call your family members begging for Venmo cash? Or asking for social security numbers? Or banking information?” tweeted a user with the identifier bitty_in_pink.
Others, including a Twitter user who goes by “Luke,” said the idea scared them off.
“It’s sweet but at the same time unbelievably creepy… I lost my mom last year in August and would die to have one last proper conversation with her but not for a fucking circular device,” she wrote.
—Luke (@LukeyGearSolid) June 23, 2022
For a long time, experts have been concerned about AI’s ability to mimic human functions. In 2015, Musk funded several AI projects, including OpenAI, to ensure researchers used the technology only for beneficial purposes. Earlier this month, an engineer claimed a Google chatbot had become sentient, but AI experts said he was far from self-aware.