Amazon’s Alexa may soon be able to replicate the voice of family members — even when they’re dead.
The capability, unveiled at Amazon’s Re:Mars conference in Las Vegas, is in development and would allow the virtual assistant to mimic a specific person’s voice based on less than a minute of recorded recording.
Rohit Prasad, senior vice president and chief scientist for Alexa, said at the event on Wednesday that the desire behind the feature was to build greater trust in the interactions users have with Alexa by adding more “human characteristics of empathy and affect.” add.
“These attributes have become even more important during the ongoing pandemic as so many of us have lost the ones we love,” Prasad said. “While AI can’t take away that pain of loss, it can certainly make their memories last.”
In a video that Amazon played during the event, a young child asks, “Alexa, can Grandma read to the Wizard of Oz?” Alexa confirms the request and switches to another voice that mimics the child’s grandmother. The voice assistant then reads the book in that same voice.
To create the feature, Prasad said the company needed to learn how to create a “high-quality voice” with a shorter recording time, as opposed to recording hours in a studio. Amazon has not provided further details about the feature, which will no doubt lead to more privacy concerns and ethical questions about consent.
Amazon’s push comes as competitor Microsoft said earlier this week it was scaling back its synthetic speech offerings and set stricter guidelines to “ensure the active participation of the speaker” whose voice is recreated. Microsoft said Tuesday it is limiting which customers are allowed to use the service, while also continuing to emphasize acceptable uses such as an interactive Bugs Bunny character in AT&T stores.
“This technology has exciting potential in education, accessibility and entertainment, yet it’s also easy to imagine how it could be used to improperly impersonate speakers and mislead listeners,” according to a blog post by Natasha Crampton, chief of Microsoft’s AI ethics division. †