Voice actors within the video game, cartoon, and anime industries have come out against the use of AI websites that copy and sell their voices without their permission.
Last Friday, voice actor Steve Blum, known for his role as Spike Spiegel in the English dub of Cowboy Bebop, posted a PSA of sorts to his Twitter followers, warning them not to buy into any AI website that’s copied and sold his voice.
“Hey friends, I know AI technology is exciting, but if you see my voice, or any of the characters that I voice, offered on any of those sites, please know that I have not given my permission, and never will,” Blum tweeted. “This is highly unethical. We all appreciate your support. Thank you.”
Blum wasn’t the only one to share their concerns over AI sites copying and selling their voices for profit without their permission. Since making his post, actors like Sean Schemmel, the English voice for Dragon Ball Z’s Goku, came out in solidarity with Blum in a reply saying he’s never given permission for an AI service to use his voice in any way.
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“EXACTLY THIS and I’ll go a step further: Anyone who does this without the voice artist’s permission is harming voice actors,” Jennifer Hale, Commander Shepard from the Mass Effect series, wrote in a quote retweet. “Please do not do this, and please do not support people who do. Thank you.”
“I’ve been warned by friends that some of my characters’ voices are on these AI sites, I would also like to make it clear that if you see any site that has my ‘voices’ offered, it is without my permission and I am explicitly against it,” SungWon Cho, God of War: Ragnarok’s Ratatoskr wrote in a quote retweet.
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In the past, the use case for AI voice sites seemed limited to YouTube parody videos where content creators produce extra lines of dialogue for a famous celebrity to punch up the humor of their videos. However, much like with deep fake porn of Twitch streamers, the upward trajectory of AI-generated voice technology’s improvements combined with legal systems’ slow pace to bring laws up to speed with AI technology, especially those used without consent, has created a massive headache.
AI-generated voice harassment campaigns
In a recent Vice article, four victims of AI-generated voice recounted how the technology was used in harassment campaigns against them. One example of AI-generated voice misuse saw Twitter accounts share actors’ private information like their home addresses using an AI-generated voice of Agent 47 from the Hitman series.
“What was the bigger frustration was how ineffective Twitter’s support system was in removing the post,” Tom Schalk, a voice actor from the horror puzzle game Poppy Playtime told Motherboard. “Regardless of the stolen identity, private information posted publicly and the racist slurs, Twitter’s support system deemed the post and the account as perfectly fine.”
The AI-generated voice site at the center of these controversies is ElevenLabs, an artificial intelligence company that says it has “the most realistic and versatile AI speech software, ever.” According to Vice, ElevenLabs has sent Twitter DMs to the victims of harassment campaigns and acknowledged that the technology was used for the Agent 47 voice was their audio, but denied that the voices that doxed them were made using its technology.
In the past, AI voice sites like ElevenLabs have been used to create audio clips of Harry Potter actress Emma Watson’s voice copy read Mein Kampf, Ben Shapiro making racist remarks about U.S. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Rick and Morty’s Rick Sanchez saying he’s “I’m going to beat my fucking wife Morty,” by 4chan users, according to Vice. The last example is particularly uncomfortable considering Rick voice actor Justin Roiland is currently facing two felony domestic abuse charges from 2020.
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Vocal Varients solution
While the misuse of AI-generated voices presents a clear problem for voice actors, it hasn’t stopped the community from rallying together to help solve this new technological crisis. Transformers: Rise of The Beasts voice actor David Sobolov and Sailor Moon voice actress Stephanie Sheh suggest that voice actors send cease and desist emails to Vocal Variants, an advocacy group of union and non-union voice actors who are concerned about actors signing contracts that ask them to sign the rights to their voices to AI clients.
Vocal Varients is made up of actors like Yuri Lowenthal (Peter Parker in Marvel’s Spider-Man), Cissy Jones (Lilith Clawthorne in The Owl House), and Keythe Farley (Thane Krios in Mass Effect). According to its website, Vocal Varients’ goals include:
Creating a standardized definition of this type of work, implementing protections for performers, and doing educational outreach to the creators and users of AI/Synthetic voice technology to foster fair and equitable work for everyone.
Actualizing legal preservation of vocal likeness and performance integrity, and identifying the industry-wide risks of AI/Synthetic voice technology around vocal identity misuse and/or malpractice.
Educating performers and their representatives about the future implications of AI/Synthetic voice automation, and amending problematic contract terms
Creating a standardized contract or set of contract clauses that properly protect against abuse
Kotaku reached out to Vocal Varients and ElevenLabs for comment but did not receive a reply by the time of publication.
“If you find our voices on AI voice apps please let us know. Their databases are often only visable to subscribers or people who have paid for the app,” Sheh tweeted, with the hashtag #protectrealvoices. “Please let us know if our voices are being stolen.”