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kottke.org posts about Justin Hendrix

An AI Bourdain Speaks From the Grave

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 16, 2021

I have been trying not to read too much about Morgan Neville’s documentary Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain before I have had a chance to watch it, but the few things I have read about it have given me some pause. From Helen Rosner’s piece about the film drawn from an interview with Neville:

There is a moment at the end of the film’s second act when the artist David Choe, a friend of Bourdain’s, is reading aloud an e-mail Bourdain had sent him: “Dude, this is a crazy thing to ask, but I’m curious” Choe begins reading, and then the voice fades into Bourdain’s own: “…and my life is sort of shit now. You are successful, and I am successful, and I’m wondering: Are you happy?” I asked Neville how on earth he’d found an audio recording of Bourdain reading his own e-mail. 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,” Neville said. “We can have a documentary-ethics panel about it later.”

Per this GQ story, Neville got permission from Bourdain’s estate:

We fed more than ten hours of Tony’s voice into an AI model. The bigger the quantity, the better the result. We worked with four companies before settling on the best. We also had to figure out the best tone of Tony’s voice: His speaking voice versus his “narrator” voice, which itself changed dramatically of over the years. The narrator voice got very performative and sing-songy in the No Reservation years. I checked, you know, with his widow and his literary executor, just to make sure people were cool with that. And they were like, Tony would have been cool with that. I wasn’t putting words into his mouth. I was just trying to make them come alive.

As a post hoc ethics panel of one, I’m gonna say this doesn’t appeal to me, but I bet this sort of thing becomes common practice in the years to come, much like Errol Morris’s use of reenactment in The Thin Blue Line. A longer and more nuanced treatment of the issue can be found in Justin Hendrix’s interview of Sam Gregory, who is an “expert on synthetic media and ethics”.

There’s a set of norms that people are grappling with in regard to this statement from the director of the Bourdain documentary. They’re asking questions around consent, right? Who consents to someone taking your voice and using it? In this case, the voiceover of a private email. And what if that was something that, if the person was alive, they might not have wanted. You’ve seen that commentary online, and people saying, “This is the last thing Anthony Bourdain would have wanted for someone to do this with his voice.” So the consent issue is one of the things that is bubbling here. The second is a disclosure issue, which is, when do you know that something’s been manipulated? And again, here in this example, the director is saying, I didn’t tell people that I had created this voice saying the words and I perhaps would have not told people unless it had come up in the interview. So these are bubbling away here, these issues of consent and disclosure.

Update: From Anthony’s ex-wife Ottavia Bourdain about the statement that “Tony would have been cool with that”:

I certainly was NOT the one who said Tony would have been cool with that.

(via @drawnonglass)