Decoding the OpenAI x Scarlett Johansson AI voice controversy (2024)

Scarlett Johansson is back in the news; this time not for her movies, but for a controversy involving another equally controversial technology firm – OpenAI.

Just days after the hype and fanfare surrounding OpenAI’s new GPT-4o AI model and its advanced voice capabilities, Hollywood star Scarlett Johansson has accused CEO Sam Altman and his team of stealing her voice for Sky, the voice assistant.

The concept of using celebrity voices for smart voice assistants isn’t new. Big names like Google, Amazon and Meta have partnered with prominent celebrities to create unique AI personalities in the past for their voice-based assistants. Hence, it’s not surprising to see OpenAI wanting to make its ChatGPT AI bot sound like Scarlett Johansson, especially since the actress has a fame for voicing an AI bot in one of her movies (the 2013 Joaquin Phoenix-starrer, Her).

But why has Scarlett Johansson raised concerns regarding ChatGPT’s voice? Has OpenAI violated her privacy and stolen her vocal identity for its latest advancements? Let’s dig in to find out.

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The seeds of the latest Scarlett Johansson controversy involving OpenAI were planted last September when ChatGPT got its voice capabilities. Over the following months, OpenAI worked on giving multimodal capabilities to GPT-4 and released it to the public as GPT-4o.

This new model allows the updated version of ChatGPT to respond in a natural accent and include various speech nuances to make the conversation seem more human. Ever since the viral demo was released to the public, the media and fans drew an uncanny resemblance between ChatGPT’s new voice model, Sky, with that of Scarlett Johansson. Soon after, Johansson’s legal team got suspicious and reached out to OpenAI for clarifications.

Simultaneously, the actress’ team also released a statement that revealed their concerns.

In the statement, Johansson’s team says that Sam Altman had reached out to the actress last September to extend a role to voice the ChatGPT 40 chatbot. Although Altman was convinced that her voice could “bridge the gap between tech companies and creatives”, Johansson declined the offer citing personal reasons.

Nine months have passed since the offer and the actress now finds a huge resemblance of the chatbot’s Sky voice system with hers.

“When I heard the released demo, I was shocked, angered and in disbelief that Mr. Altman would pursue a voice that sounded so eerily similar to mine that my closest friends and news outlets could not tell the difference,” said Johansson in the statement.

Additionally, the actress also refers to Altman’s post on X that contained a single word ‘her’. This is believed to be a reference to the movie Her,where Scarlett Johansson voiced the chatbot called Samantha.

The Black Widow actress says that two days prior to the release of the latest GPT model, Altman had reached out to her team once more to reconsider the offer. However, the model was released before the team could get back.

As a result of their actions, I was forced to hire legal counsel, who wrote two letters to Mr. Altman and OpenAI, setting out what they had done and asking them to detail the exact process by which they created the “Sky” voice. Consequently, OpenAI reluctantly agreed to take down the “Sky” voice,” acknowledges the statement.

What does OpenAI have to say?

In response to the concern raised by the actress, OpenAI has pulled off the Sky voice model for the time being and the team is in conversations to resolve the issue.

However, OpenAI states that Sky isn’t trying to imitate the actress’ voice. In fact, Sky was voiced by another voice actor who is said to have lent her natural voice after hours of screening and casting process.

“We believe that AI voices should not deliberately mimic a celebrity’s distinctive voice — Sky’s voice is not an imitation of Scarlett Johansson but belongs to a different professional actress using her natural speaking voice. To protect their privacy, we cannot share the names of our voice talents,” says OpenAI in its statement.

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OpenAI x Scarlett Johansson controversy: The outcome

Soon after Johansson’s team released the statement and got in touch with OpenAI, the maker of ChatGPT paused using Sky – a development which Johansson’s team acknowledged in the statement. At the moment, both parties are trying to work out the issue.

OpenAI has said that it will be more transparent in how the voice for Sky was chosen and clarify the issues with Ms Johansson’s team.

If Scarlett Johansson and her team give a green signal, Sky would end up being the default choice of voice for ChatGPT Plus subscribers relying on GPT-4o.

(Main and Featured Image Credits: Courtesy Zac Wolff via Unsplash)

This article first appeared in Augustman Singapore.

Decoding the OpenAI x Scarlett Johansson AI voice controversy (2024)


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