Alexa’s new feature could soon mimic voice of dead relatives

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FILE – In this Sept. 27, 2017, file photo, Amazon Echo and Echo Plus devices, behind, sit near illuminated Echo Button devices during an event announcing several new Amazon products by the company in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)

SAN FRANCISCO (KRON) — Amazon announced a new feature Wednesday that will allow Alexa to speak in the voices of deceased relatives, friends and other loved ones.

Speaking at a day two keynote during the company’s annual MARS conference in Las Vegas, Alexa head scientist Rohit Prasad showed a video of Alexa, ostensibly sounding like a boy’s deceased grandmother reading him a book.

“Alexa, can grandma finish reading me ‘The Wizard of Oz’?” the child asks before Alexa goes into the book.

Prasad said one thing that surprises him about Alexa is “the companionship relationship we have with it.”

“In this companionship rule, human attributes like empathy and affect are key to building trust,” Prasad said. “These attributes have become even more important in these times of the ongoing pandemic, when so many of us have lost someone we love. While AI can’t eliminate that pain of loss, it can definitely make those memories last.”

Prasad said his team had to learn how to produce a high-quality voice with less than a minute of recording, instead an hour of recording in the studio.

Amazon did not provide further details about the feature, which is bound to spark more privacy concerns and ethical questions about consent.

Amazon’s push comes as competitor Microsoft earlier this week said it was scaling back its synthetic voice offerings and setting stricter guidelines to “ensure the active participation of the speaker” whose voice is recreated.

“This technology has exciting potential in education, accessibility, and entertainment, and yet it is also easy to imagine how it could be used to inappropriately impersonate speakers and deceive listeners,” said a blog post from Natasha Crampton, who heads Microsoft’s AI ethics division.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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