“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
When Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) uttered this oft-quoted line in 1993’s Jurassic Park, he was talking about the genetic resurrection of dinosaurs—or, more specifically, the commodification of that power.
But the argument could easily be applied to a more recent (and not fictional) development: That Amazon’s Alexa technology has progressed to the point where it can now mimic the voice of any person, living or dead. And you won’t have to feed your Alexa-compatible device hours’ worth of recorded audio in order to generate a satisfactory facsimile—it can do it with less than one solid minute of speech.
As Variety reports, Amazon announced the news earlier this week at re:MARS, a Las Vegas conference covering the latest in machine-learning, automation, robotics, and space technologies (hence the acronym MARS). While unveiling the new capability during the event—against a backdrop bearing the words “human-like empathy”—Rohit Prasad, senior vice president and head scientist for Alexa AI, described it as something that “enables lasting personal relationships.”
He then rolled a clip of a young boy asking Alexa if Grandma could “finish reading me The Wizard of Oz?” with the tacit implication that Grandma was unreachable, and not because her phone was dead. Judging by the grandson’s apparent delight, we’re forced to conclude that Alexa’s impression of his beloved grandmother passed muster. Or maybe he’s just chuffed that the Cowardly Lion finally found his inner courage.
It’s not the first time Alexa has spoken with a familiar voice; Samuel L. Jackson and other celebrities have lent their tones to it in the past, though not without recording lots of audio for it. The difference now, as Prasad explained, is that developers pivoted from generating speech to converting speech into another voice.
While similar voice-cloning technology has already come in handy in the entertainment industry—most notably in the Star Wars universe—it’s unclear how many people would want the aural ghost of a deceased loved one floating through the rooms of their own houses. Amazon hasn’t announced a public release date, so we’ll have to wait and see.