Tufekci: Scarlett Johanson’s voice isn’t only thing AI is after

Humanity’s collective creative output is being repurposed and monetized as AI companies see fit.

By Zeynep Tufekci / The New York Times

When OpenAI introduced its virtual assistant, Sky, last week, many gasped. It sounded just like Scarlett Johansson, who had famously played an artificial intelligence voice assistant in the movie “Her.”

On the surface, the choice made sense: last year, Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI, had named it his favorite science fiction movie, even posting the single word “her” around the assistant’s debut.

OpenAI approached Johansson to be the voice for its virtual assistant, and she turned it down. The company approached her again two days before the launch of Sky, but this time, she said in a blistering statement, it didn’t even wait for her official “no” before releasing a voice that sounds so similar to hers that it even fooled her friends and family.

In response to Johansson’s scathing letter, OpenAI claimed that the voice was someone else and “was never intended to resemble hers,” but it took Sky down anyway.

The AI industry is built on grabbing our data — the output that humanity has collectively produced: books, art, music, blog posts, social media, videos — and using it to train AI firms’ models, from which they then make money or use as they wish. For the most part, AI companies haven’t asked or paid the people who created the data they grab and whose actual employment and future are threatened by the models trained on it.

Politicians haven’t stepped in to ask why humanity’s collective output should be usurped and monopolized by a handful of companies. They’ve practically let the industry do what it wants for decades.

I am someone who believes in the true upside of technology, including AI. But amid all the lofty talk about its transformational power, these companies are perpetuating an information grab, a money grab and a “break the rules and see what we can get away with” mentality that’s worked very well for them for the past few decades.

Altman, it seems, liked Johansson’s voice, so the company made a simulacrum of it. Why not?

When you’re a tech industry star, they let you do anything.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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