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Scarlett Johansson demands answers about the voice for ChatGPT's personal assistant

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Scarlett Johansson, the star of many films, says, the maker of ChatGPT copied her voice. And she's angry. Last week, OpenAI, the creator of ChatGPT, released a personal assistant featuring a female voice that sounded a whole lot like Johansson. Here's what the assistant sounded like in the company's demonstration.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AI-GENERATED VOICE: Once upon a time, in a world not too different from ours, there was a robot named Byte.

INSKEEP: A world not too different from ours - NPR technology correspondent Bobby Allyn broke the story about Johansson speaking out. He's on the line. Hey there, Bobby.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: What happened here?

ALLYN: So it all goes back actually to a scifi film from 2013. It's called "Her," and the movie portrays Joaquin Phoenix, who falls in love with a super-intelligent AI on his computer.

INSKEEP: Right.

ALLYN: Now, the AI is voiced by Scarlett Johansson. OpenAI CEO Sam Altman has said that this movie is his favorite because he says it was incredibly prophetic for how it portrayed conversational AI models, kind of like the one that he developed at OpenAI that you might know of, called ChatGPT.

INSKEEP: Sure.

ALLYN: So when the new ChatGPT came out and the voice sounded a lot like Johansson, many thought it was a nod to the film. Altman even posted one word on X the same day of the announcement, "Her," the name of the movie. So I was wondering, OK, well, what does Johansson's people think about this? So I reached out to her camp.

INSKEEP: OK, so what did she say?

ALLYN: Well, her statement to me was a bit of a bombshell. She said Altman not once, but twice, reached out to her about licensing her voice for ChatGPT. She said Altman said her voice would make those uneasy with AI maybe a little bit more comfortable with it, because she does have quite a warm and comforting voice. She declined the offer. So when she heard the voice in the ChatGPT demo, she wrote she was, quote, "shocked, angered, and in disbelief." She said it was so eerily similar to the way she sounds that her own family was contacting her wondering if it was her. So she had her lawyers send OpenAi and Altman letters demanding to know what went into this distinctive AI voice, and in response, OpenAI has taken the voice down completely.

INSKEEP: Given that they asked, and she said no, given that they made this apparent reference to Scarlett Johansson's voice in the movie, as they made the demonstration, how have they explained themselves?

ALLYN: Well, Altman released a statement saying the AI voice in question - they named it Sky, for some reason - was never intended to resemble Scarlett Johansson. Altman said they found another actress to base it off of, who, of course, does sound like Scarlett Johansson, but he did not mention that. And before Altman reached out to Scarlett Johansson, CEO Altman says he found this other actress whose name he is not providing, saying he wants to protect this actress's privacy. But he did, Steve, have one message for Scarlett Johansson, which was, we are sorry we didn't communicate better.

INSKEEP: Didn't communicate better - OK, but doesn't this point to the very thing that worries people about artificial intelligence or one of the things anyway?

ALLYN: Yeah, Scarlett Johansson is a high-profile actress, of course, but many other creatives are pushing back against AI companies for sweeping up their creative work without permission and payment. And courts have yet to decide, you know, what the balance should be between preserving original creative work and an AI company's right to use that work as fodder. But Scarlett Johansson herself called out the rise of deepfakes and other deceptive uses of AI and called out stealing an actor's likeness as being an issue, which is obviously her issue here. Those things are unresolved, and she says should be regulated. And she also called out U.S. lawmakers and said they should pass regulations that make sure individual rights are protected in the AI era.

INSKEEP: We're listening to the original work of NPR's Bobby Allyn. Thanks so much.

ALLYN: Thanks, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.