Another day, another terrifying step towards the kind of dystopian future predicted by science fiction. We're not yet at the stage where we can bring back the dead as androids, but Amazon has developed the ability to bring back their voices. And it's a feature that could be coming to Alexa.
The company revealed new advances in its AI application at its re:MARS (machine learning, automation, robotics, and space) conference this week. And it's clear that Amazon no longer sees Alexa as merely a personal assistant, but also "an advisor and companion." It's that latter role that inspired work to give Alexa the ability to reproduce any voice from just a one-minute recording. The main use case? To allow the creation of "lasting personal relationships" with deceased loved ones.
Don't yet have Alexa in your life? See our ultimate guide to Amazon devices if you want to try her out. And if you're looking for any kind of new Apple tech, see our Apple Prime Day deals, some of which are now live. But for now, let's look a little more closely at this latest announcement.
Rohit Prasad, SVP and head scientist at Alexa AI, made the reveal at this week's conference. He showed in a video demonstration (see from 1.02.00 above) in which a young boy asks his panda model Echo Dot for Kids, "Alex, can grandma finish reading me the Wizard of OZ?" "OK," Alexa replies, before changing her voice and beginning to read while the boy turns the pages of his book.
Prasad didn't give a timeline on when we could expect the feature to be released, saying only that it's something currently being worked on, but he gave the impression that it's fairly advanced. He said the breakthrough came when Amazon framed the problem as a voice conversion task rather than a speech generation task. "While AI can't eliminate that pain of loss, it can definitely make their memories last," Prasad says.
Alexa currently has two main voices, plus some celebrity voices, including Samuel L. Jackson and Melissa McCarthy. Having Alexa speak like Samuel L. Jackson is pretty cool, but this new development feels a little concerning for me. While it's admirable that Amazon wants to combat loneliness and help people deal with loss – it says it was particularly inspired by the Covid-19 pandemic – I can't help but be a little creeped out.
I also wonder whether it would be entirely positive for the process of grieving. In an episode of the science fiction series Black Mirror, Be Right Back, the protagonist Martha uses a service that allows people to communicate with a (deceased) loved one, and let's just say it doesn't go entirely smoothly. My other concern would be the potential security risks that could be posed by the abuse of such an easily available system that can mimic anybody's voice so convincingly.
Prasad detailed a number of other developments in Alexa's speech recognition to allow more natural conversations, including a better ability to recognise the structure of human speech and to make natural responses. Conversation Mode on Echo Show 10 has already made some advances, removing the need to use the wake word on every turn. It seems Alexa will become more and more human-like, which can be useful for a lot of things, but bringing back the dead may be a move too far that's even more frightening than Google's new AI image generator.