The company announced on Wednesday during its annual re: MARS conference, which focuses on artificial intelligence innovation, that it’s working on an update to its Alexa system that would allow the technology to mimic any voice, even a deceased family member.
Rohit Prasad, an Amazon senior vice president, said the updated system will be able to collect enough voice data from less than a minute of audio to make personalization like this possible, rather than having someone spend hours in a recording studio like how it’s done in the past. Prasad did not elaborate on when this feature could launch. Amazon declined to comment on a timeline.
The concept stems from Amazon looking at new ways to add more “human attributes” to artificial intelligence, especially “in these times of the ongoing pandemic, when so many of us have lost someone we love,” Prasad said. “While AI can’t eliminate that pain of loss, it can definitely make their memories last.”
Adam Wright, a senior analyst at IDC Research, said he sees the value in Amazon’s effort.
“I think Amazon is interested in doing this because they have the capability and technology, and they are always searching for ways to elevate the smart assistant and smart home experience,” Wright said. “Whether it drives a deeper connection with Alexa, or just becomes a skill that some folks dabble with from time to time remains to be seen.”
Amazon’s foray into personalized Alexa voices may struggle most with the uncanny valley effect — recreating a voice that is so similar to a loved one’s but isn’t quite right, which leads to rejection by real humans.
“There are certainly some risks, such as if the voice and resulting AI interactions don’t match well with the loved ones’ memories of that individual,” said Micheal Inouye of ABI Research. “For some, they will view this as creepy or outright terrible, but for others it could be viewed in a more profound way such as the example given by allowing a child to hear their grandparent’s voice, perhaps for the first time and in a way that isn’t a strict recording from the past.”
He believes, however, the varying reactions to announcements like this speak to how society will have to adjust to the promise of innovations and their eventual reality in the years ahead.
“We’ll definitely see more of these types of experiments and trials — and at least until we get a higher comfort level or these things become more mainstream, there will still be a wide range of responses,” he said.