A.I. firms are trying to replace voice actors, and they’re getting help from voice actors to do it

February 25, 2023, 12:00 PM UTC
A voice actor in a studio with a microphone
Voice actors couldn’t be blamed for worrying about artificial intelligence.
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One of the chief concerns about artificial intelligence has long been that it will kill jobs by taking over the work that people currently do. Such fears have been amplified by the exploding interest in generative A.I. tools that can create essays, images, and music via a simple text prompt. OpenAI’s ChatGPT, a buzzy chatbot introduced a few months ago, is the prime example, but there are many more.

So far, workers are not losing their jobs in droves because of such tools. But many fear the day is not far off. Just ask voice actors. Already A.I. tools exist that can make a famous voice seem to say anything with minimal effort by the user. Last month Microsoft researchers showed off a text-to-speech A.I. tool that can simulate anyone’s voice after being fed three seconds of audio of the person speaking.

This week, Rest of World, a nonprofit publication that covers technology “beyond the Western bubble,” reported on A.I. dubbing companies hiring voice actors in Latin America to train their algorithms—with an eye toward eventually replacing voice actors like them who are used in commercials, cartoons, movies, news segments, and so on. 

But in this case, the loss of jobs isn’t just theoretical. As Rest of World reports, it’s happening. The publication interviewed Argentine voice actor Alejandro Graue, who discovered last month that an A.I.-generated voice had replaced him in a video for a self-improvement YouTube channel for which he’d previously recorded voice-overs. 

Graue recalled a technician at the channel telling him that using the A.I. voice is cheaper than paying his rates. Graue fired off an angry tweet directed not at the A.I. technology, but at the voice actors who were helping to train such tools: “Thanks to all the actors and actresses who are lending their voices to create this shit that will eventually render all of us obsolete.”

One of those voice actors who spoke to Rest of World, asking to remain anonymous, described the “marathon” recording sessions in which he participated. “For hours, they make us record a load of words and loose letters in different styles and tones.” Another said they’re asked to sign agreements that will prevent them from claiming any part of a company’s proprietary “voice bank” in the future.

Graue told the publication that he too had been offered gigs training the algorithms in his hometown of Buenos Aires, starting a few months ago. “When they offered me the gig, they told me that I had to record 10,000 words and that they would pay me 10,000 pesos,” which is about $52 at the official exchange rate. 

Among the companies offering A.I. dubbing in Spanish are Tel Aviv–based Deepdub, which focuses on movies and TV shows, and London-based Papercup, which specializes in nonfiction content such as news from the BBC, according to Rest of World.

Papercup CEO Jesse Shemen told Fortune that his company “provides a complementary offer to traditional dubbing that unlocks new audiences around the world and supports the growth of creative industries as a whole.”

“Our mission is simple: We want to unlock the 99% of the world’s video content that is trapped in a single language,” he added. “We are proud to work with our network of voice actors, expert translators and A.I. specialists, as we build a product that provides global audiences with high-quality content that would previously never have been localized because of barriers like cost or practicality.”

Deepdub did not respond to Fortune’s request for comments.

Voice actors aren’t the only professionals contending with changes to their field brought by A.I. 

Editors at the American sci-fi magazine Clarkesworld recently stopped accepting story submissions after discovering that many of those recently handed in by writers had, in fact, been generated by A.I. Some professors are banning the use of ChatGPT in the name of academic integrity, while others are requiring it since they deem knowing how to use A.I. to be an emerging skill. JPMorgan, for its part, recently told employees the use of ChatGPT was off-limits

The example of Latin American voice actors stands out, perhaps, for how directly workers are being affected, even as other voice actors cooperate with the A.I. dubbing firms putting their future work at risk.

This story was updated with the comments from Papercup.

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