When Apple quietly launched a catalog of A.I.-narrated audiobooks early in January, it was surprising news, and it wasn’t. Robot narrators are not new: Alexa provides text-to-speech for Kindle content and Google offers a suite of artificial voices of various genders and accents for those wishing to publish “auto-narrated” audiobooks.
The difference is that Apple’s four voices—“Madison” and “Jackson” suggested for fiction, “Helena” and “Mitchell” for nonfiction—sound much more natural than the digitally generated voices available elsewhere, leading to fears that they could replace human narrators altogether. A few of Apple’s voices are even noticeably similar to the voices of well-known members of the community of human audiobook narrators. “There’s a little tension there,” Edoardo Ballerini told me. “There has been a sense that narrators should stay away from this, that they shouldn’t participate in the hastening of their colleagues’ demise.”
Ballerini, profiled in the New York Times as “the voice of God,” is among the coterie of star narrators whose performances have become a selling point in themselves. (Knowing that I’ll get to hear the text read in Ballerini’s soulful voice has certainly prompted me to buy an audiobook when I was otherwise on the fence.) Ballerini said he hasn’t been approached yet with an offer to provide the velvety building blocks for an A.I. version of his own voice, but “I know other people who have, and some have refused. Others, it sounds like, did not.”
For Emily Woo Zeller—narrator of Marie Kondo’s bestselling The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and winner of AudioFile magazine’s 2020 Golden Voice award—the issue is more existential. By providing recordings that help artificial intelligence learn to speak more naturally, she noted, narrators are participating in “another level of giving the voice away.”
Because Apple’s A.I. narration is shrouded in secrecy and (presumably) NDAs, there’s no confirmed account of how the narrators behind the voices for Madison, et al., were compensated. But Zeller pointed to the example of Susan Bennett, who unwittingly provided the voice for the original Siri, Apple’s digital personal assistant. Because the recordings that became the basis for Siri were commissioned by another company for another purpose, Bennett, who received a one-time payment, didn’t even know that she’d become the voice of a million iPhones until a friend alerted her to the similarity when Siri was introduced six years later. (Apple has never confirmed whose voice was the basis for Siri, but an audio-forensics expert consulted by CNN expressed “100 percent” certainty that it’s Bennett.)
In the absence of solid intel on Apple’s contracts with the actors it used, members of the professional narrator community are concerned they’ll be the next to be Siri-ized. They worry, as Zeller puts it, that “we get paid one sum and the producer or publisher owns that work and everything related to it forever and ever,” effectively taking possession of the narrator’s distinctive voice.
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Part of the problem is that the types of titles that seem most likely to receive A.I. narration—older or self-published books unlikely to sell enough copies to make compensating a human narrator affordable—tend to be fiction, and the A.I. narrators are simply terrible at fiction. The majority of these audiobooks are romances and thrillers. It’s hard to imagine romance fans thrilling to dialogue from one of the genre’s sexy alpha heroes when it’s recited in the earnest female voice of Madison, which seems by far to be the most popular of Apple’s four options. Likewise, I listened to the in medias res opening scene of a thriller in which the narrator and his lover (some kind of scientist, perhaps) are setting off a gigantic rocket on a hill overlooking London. “ ‘Don’t let go of me!’ she shouted,” recited Jackson with zombie-like placidity.
Link to the rest at Slate