The company announced Wednesday during its annual re:MARS conference, which focuses on artificial intelligence innovation, that it is working on an update to its Alexa system that would allow the technology to imitate any voice, even if a family member is deceased.
Rohit Prasad, Amazon’s vice president, said the updated system would be able to collect enough audio data from less than a minute of audio to make customization like this possible, rather than spending hours in a recording studio like it’s been done in the past. Prasad did not say when the feature might be launched. Amazon declined to comment on a timeline.
The concept stems from Amazon’s search for new ways to add more “human traits” to AI, Prasad said, particularly “in these times of an ongoing pandemic, when so many of us have lost someone we love.” “While AI cannot eliminate this pain of loss, it can certainly make their memories last.”
Adam Wright, chief analyst at IDC Research, said he sees the value of Amazon’s efforts.
“I think Amazon is interested in doing that because they have the capability and the technology, and they are always looking for ways to elevate the smart assistant and smart home experience,” Wright said. “Whether that leads to a deeper connection with Alexa, or just becomes a skill that some people pick up from time to time remains to be seen.”
Amazon’s foray into Alexa’s personal voices may be more difficult with the uncanny valley effect – recreating a voice very similar to that of a loved one but not quite right, leading to rejection by real humans.
“There are certainly some risks, such as whether the voice and the resulting AI interactions don’t match up well with loved ones’ memories of that person,” said ABI Research’s Michelle Inoue. “For some, they will view this as frightening or outright horrible, but for others it can be seen in a more profound way such as the example he gave by letting a child hear their grandparents’ voice, perhaps for the first time and in some way this is not strictly a recording from the past.”
However, he believes the mixed reactions to advertisements like this speak to how society will have to adjust to the promise and ultimate reality of innovations in the coming years.
“We will definitely see more of these kinds of experiences and experiments – and at least until we get a higher level of comfort or these things become more common, there will still be a wide range of responses,” he said.