Alexa’s new feature simulates the voice of the dead

At its most recent MARS conference, Amazon demonstrated an experimental Alexa feature that allows a digital assistant to mimic the voice of the dead through artificial intelligence. In a video shown at the event, a boy asks Alexa to read a story in the voice of his late grandmother.

“As you saw in this experiment, instead of Alexa’s voice reading the book, it’s the baby’s grandmother’s voice,” says Rohit Prasad, Amazon’s chief scientist at Alexa AI, in the video. According to Prasad, adding “human traits” to AI systems is becoming increasingly important “in times of pandemic, when many of us lose someone we love.”

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“AI cannot eliminate the pain of loss, but it can make your memories last longer,” says the scientist. Amazon claims that its system can learn to mimic audio with just one minute of recorded audio.

The idea sounds like it was part of a science fiction movie, but imitation of voice with artificial intelligence has become increasingly popular in recent years. Voice deepfakes are already widely used in podcasts, video games, television, and movies.

In one example, in last year’s documentary about Anthony Bourdain, who died in 2018, production used artificial intelligence to read excerpts from emails in the chef’s voice. Some fans found the application of the technology disrespectful to the deceased, while others advocated the use of artificial intelligence like any other technology used for reconstruction in documentaries.

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For Prasad, Alexa’s voice imitation feature will allow users to establish “enduring personal relationships” with deceased relatives. It should be noted that some people are already doing this by creating chatbots that mimic the dead through cell phone text messages, for example. Adding sounds to such a system is now fully possible using artificial intelligence.

Amazon hasn’t said if it will actually roll out this Alexa voice feature to the public.

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