Anthony Bourdain’s voice-cloning for new doc called into question: It’s ‘a slippery slope’

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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.

The movie “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain” appeared in cinemas Friday and mostly features real footage of the beloved celebrity chef and globe-trotting television host before he died in 2018. But its director, Morgan Neville, told The New Yorker that a snippet of dialogue was created using artificial intelligence technology.

That’s renewed a debate about the future of voice-cloning technology, not just in the entertainment world but in politics and a fast-growing commercial sector dedicated to transforming text into realistic-sounding human speech.

“Unapproved voice cloning is a slippery slope,” said Andrew Mason, the founder and CEO of voice generator Descript, in a blog post Friday. “As soon as you get into a world where you’re making subjective judgment calls about whether specific cases can be ethical, it won’t be long before anything goes.”

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Before this week, most of the public controversy around such technologies focused on the creation of hard-to-detect deepfakes using simulated audio and/or video and their potential to fuel misinformation and political conflict.

Anthony Bourdain speaks at an event in Austin, Texas, March 13, 2016. (Associated Press)

Anthony Bourdain speaks at an event in Austin, Texas, March 13, 2016. (Associated Press)

Ahmed said a more common commercial use is to edit a TV ad recorded by real voice actors and then customize it to a region by adding a local reference. It’s also used to dub anime movies and other videos, by taking a voice in one language and making it speak a different language, he said.

He compared it to past innovations in the entertainment industry, from stunt actors to greenscreen technology.

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Just seconds or minutes of recorded human speech can help teach an AI system to generate its own synthetic speech, though getting it to capture the clarity and rhythm of Anthony Bourdain’s voice probably took a lot more training, said Rupal Patel, a professor at Northeastern University who runs another voice-generating company, VocaliD, that focuses on customer service chatbots.

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“If you wanted it to speak really like him, you’d need a lot, maybe 90 minutes of good, clean data,” she said. “You’re building an algorithm that learns to speak like Bourdain spoke.”

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Neville is an acclaimed documentarian who also directed the Fred Rogers portrait “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and the Oscar-winning “20 Feet From Stardom.” He began making his latest movie in 2019, more than a year after Bourdain’s death by suicide in June 2018.