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Bourdain's Widow: No, I Didn't Approve a Fake AI Voice

Documentary causes a stir by using artificial intelligence for some Bourdain narration
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Jul 16, 2021 1:39 PM CDT

(Newser) – The new Anthony Bourdain documentary is out, and critics say Roadrunner is well worth watching. But one aspect in particular is proving to be controversial. Filmmaker Morgan Neville used artificial intelligence to recreate the voice of Bourdain at certain points in the documentary, and that is raising an ethical debate about the technique. Coverage:

  • How: In an interview with GQ, Neville said his team gathered up all the audio they could find of Bourdain talking about his own life. "We fed more than 10 hours of Tony’s voice into an AI model," he says. At one point, for example, Bourdain appears to be reading one of his own emails, per the New Yorker. The "effect is eerie," writes Helen Rosner of the latter magazine. (She's the one who first broke the story.) Neville tells her he used the trick three times in the movie.
  • Permission? "I checked, you know, with his widow and his literary executor, just to make sure people were cool with that," Neville tells GQ. "And they were like, Tony would have been cool with that. I wasn’t putting words into his mouth. I was just trying to make them come alive."

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  • Not so much: Boudain's widow, Ottavia Bourdain, disputed that she signed off on the use of AI. "I certainly was NOT the one who said Tony would have been cool with that," she tweeted, per EW.com.
  • Reaction: Neville told Rosner that "we can have a documentary-ethics panel about it later," and that seems to be well underway. "When I wrote my review I was not aware that the filmmakers had used an AI to deepfake Bourdain’s voice for portions of the narration," tweeted Sean Burns of WBUR in Boston. "I feel like this tells you all you need to know about the ethics of the people behind this project." Documentary filmmaker Lindsey Beyerstein wrote that "there’s no real problem with using AI in the place of a soundalike actor in a nonfiction film, as long as the creators are upfront about what they’re doing."
  • More: Vulture rounds up more reaction, from professionals and non-professionals alike. The overall gist seems to be that most people are uncomfortable with the technique—and most think Bourdain himself would have hated it. "This feels unethical to me maybe?" tweeted author and cultural historian Isaac Butler.
  • Neville responds: After the clatter broke out, Neville told Variety: “There were a few sentences that Tony wrote that he never spoke aloud. With the blessing of his estate and literary agent we used AI technology. It was a modern storytelling technique that I used in a few places where I thought it was important to make Tony’s words come alive.”
  • A defense of sorts: In an interview with the Today in Tabs newsletter, Rosner of the New Yorker weighs in on the controversy. "I really deeply understand why people are bothered by this (or bothered by what they think this is), and I'm a little uneasy with it too, but I don't think it's this grievous violation," she says. "I think it's a synthesis of our existential uneasiness with AI plus our sort of parasocial sense of connection to (and maybe even ownership of) Bourdain, plus (sorry to everyone!) maybe a little bit of a naive understanding of filmmaking tools." (The entire interview is well worth reading for those digging in to the controversy.)

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