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Amazon Gives the Internet the Creeps with AI Impersonation of a Grandma

A presentation by Alexa’s chief scientist left the impression that Amazon was pitching the service as a tool for digitally raising the dead

Amazon.com Inc. Echo Plus devices on display.
By Matt Day and Prarthana Prakash
June 23, 2022 | 02:40 pm

Bloomberg — “Creepy.” “Morbid.” “Monstrosity.”

Those were just some of the reactions that poured in over social media when Amazon.com Inc.’s (AMZN) Alexa digital assistant impersonated a grandmother reading an excerpt from “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.”

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It all started innocently enough, with Alexa chief scientist Rohit Prasad trying to demonstrate the digital assistant’s humanlike mein during a company presentation Wednesday. Prasad said he’d been surprised by the companionable relationship users develop with Alexa and wanted to explore that. Human characteristics like “empathy and affect” are key for building trust with people, he added.

“These attributes have become more important in these times of the ongoing pandemic, when so many of us have lost someone we love,” he said. “While AI can’t eliminate that pain of loss, it can definitely make their memories last.”

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The presentation left the impression that Amazon was pitching the service as a tool for digitally raising the dead. Prasad walked that back a bit in a subsequent interview on the sidelines of Amazon’s re:MARS technology conference in Las Vegas, saying the service wasn’t primarily designed to simulate the voice of dead people.

“It’s not about people who aren’t with you anymore,” he said. “But it’s about, your grandma, if you want your kid to listen to grandma’s voice you can do that, if she is not available. Personally I would want that.”

As the presentation ricocheted around the web, the creep factor dominated the discourse. But more serious concerns emerged, as well. One was the potential for deploying the technology to create deep fakes -- in this case using a legitimate recording to mimic people saying something they haven’t actually vocalized.

While Amazon didn’t say when the new Alexa feature would be rolled out, similar technology could eventually make such mischief a lot easier. Prasad said Amazon had learned to simulate a voice based on less than a minute of that person’s speech. Pulling that off previously required hours in a studio.