Voice Clones Anthony Bourdain

The revelation that a documentary filmmaker used voice-cloning software to make the late chef Anthony Bourdain say words he never spoke has drawn criticism amid ethical concerns about use of the powerful technology.

PITTSFIELD — In my very first Berkshire Eagle column in December 2016, I explored the philosophical questions of bringing dead actors back to life on screen, spurred by Lucasfilm’s controversial decision to resurrect Peter Cushing via realistic computer animation in “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” and how it just felt wrong.

Filmmaker Morgan Neville has taken this a step further, as in his documentary “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain,” he has used artificial intelligence to produce sound bites in the voice of the late culinary icon that Bourdain wrote but never said aloud, which was revealed in a recent article by The New Yorker’s Helen Rosner:

“Throughout the film, Neville and his team used stitched-together clips of Bourdain’s narration pulled from TV, radio, podcasts and audiobooks. ‘But there were three quotes there I wanted his voice for that there were no recordings of,’ Neville explained. So he got in touch with a software company, gave it about a dozen hours of recordings, and, he said, ‘I created an A.I. model of his voice.’ In a world of computer simulations and deepfakes, a dead man’s voice speaking his own words of despair is hardly the most dystopian application of the technology. But the seamlessness of the effect is eerie. ‘If you watch the film, other than that line you mentioned, you probably don’t know what the other lines are that were spoken by the A.I., and you’re not going to know.’”

Since the article came out, there has been significant backlash against Neville’s use of AI, which he has defended as a “modern storytelling technique.” And while it’s understandable why this practice makes some people feel uncomfortable on principle — myself included — it is important to stress that Neville is only fabricating Bourdain’s voice; the words are genuinely his.

It also makes sense why he would want to do this. In absence of genuine audio recordings, documentaries often have an outside narrator read such quotes, which can break the flow of the film — but no matter how convincing or genuine they feel, those sound bites are still fabrications, and this technology comes with a slew of ethical problems Neville sidestepped in his interview. In his own words: “We can have a documentary-ethics panel about it later.”

Or we could have one now. When it comes to new technology, we have a really bad habit of throwing caution to the wind and opening up Pandora’s box without ever considering if doing so makes sense. The 2020 docudrama “The Social Dilemma” highlights how such thinking crafted social media platforms into the misinformation hellscapes that they are today, which fittingly puts Mark Zuckerberg’s motto of “move fast and break things” into a new perspective, proving that reckless innovation without ethical guidance can ruin the world, even if you have altruistic intentions.

This is not to condemn Neville’s use of this technology, but I am skeptical of it. There’s a lot of thought and care that goes into a human performance, as actors transform words in a script into an audible finished project, and there is no possible way a machine can accurately predict how someone would read even their own words because one of the key ingredients in performance is unpredictability and innovation — this is why some of the best lines in film are improvised. There are a myriad of spontaneous creative choices a performer must make even when reading words verbatim, including tone, intonation, use of dramatic pauses and more that are often decided by circumstance.

Rosner does note that Neville’s use of this technology is hardly the “most dystopian application” of it, and she is right; perhaps the most dystopian application of this technology would be to combine it with advanced CG to bring dead actors back to life in a way that cuts out human performance entirely. It’s not crazy to imagine that one day technology could digitally bring back sophisticated versions of dead actors like Marilyn Monroe and Marlon Brando to the silver screen, even to the point where it is practical for them to take on leading roles. And this is not to speak of the applications an authoritarian government could use for this technology, many of which already use mass media and surveillance technology to mislead and control their populations.

As the gap between science fiction and science fact closes — especially with advanced AI, computer animation and an increasingly digital world — it is clear that we need to ask ourselves tough ethical questions about how this technology can be used and how it should be regulated. Social media echo chambers already mar our perception of reality, and the tools to manipulate that perception are only becoming more advanced and varied. If the last decade of digital innovations has taught us anything, it’s that the future is closer than we think.

Mitchell Chapman is an Eagle page designer/copy editor and columnist.

Weekend News Editor and Columnist

Mitchell Chapman has been with The Eagle since 2016. He is a former editor of The MCLA Beacon and was a Berkshires Week intern in 2017.