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Alexa, the cloud-based voice service from Amazon, has a pleasant, feminine voice by default. Of course, there are ways to change the voice you hear on Amazon Echo and other compatible devices. But the American multinational tech company recently announced plans to allow users to customize Alexa’s voice in a new and very personal way.
At re:MARS 2022, Amazon’s global artificial intelligence event for machine learning, automation, robotics and space, the company revealed a new Alexa feature in the works. An Alexa-enabled device could read aloud using a deceased loved one’s voice based on a brief recording.
Rohit Prasad, senior vice president and head scientist for Alexa, said in his speech at the event on June 22. that he was surprised by the level of companionship users have developed with the digital assistant.
“In this companionship role, human attributes of empathy and affect are key for building trust. These attributes have become even 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.”
Prasad proceeded to show the following clip from Amazon Web Services of a feature he said would enable “lasting personal relationships.”
In the video, a young boy asks Alexa if Grandma can finish reading “The Wizard of Oz.”
“Instead of Alexa’s voice reading the book, it’s the kid’s grandma’s voice,” explained Prasad. “We had to learn to produce a high-quality voice with less than a minute of recording.”
Responses to the announcement are mixed, according to those who have viewed the video.
“I would love to have Alexa talk to me in my father’s voice,” wrote one YouTube viewer with the handle T H. “I lost him 2 years ago. I’m 36 and I don’t care who judges me.”
However, the overwhelming sentiment seems to be negative.
“Do people really even want this technology to exist? Just because it could doesn’t mean it should,” commenter Antony posted.
“That voice stuff should never see the light of day, period,” stated MoistGoat. “It has so many ethical and moral implications, like cloning. Then you also have security implications, psychological impact on the grieving process, and so on. Amazon’s pursuit of money has hit a new low I guess.”
Previously, Amazon offered the option to hear a celebrity’s voice when speaking to the virtual assistant. For a one-time purchase, you can interact with the voices of people like Samuel L. Jackson, Melissa McCarthy or Shaquille O’Neal. You can also change Alexa’s default voice to a male voice by saying, “Alexa, change your voice.”
During the re:Mars conference, Amazon also focused on other aspects of its technological vision, such as its Just Walk Out technology that allows customers to exit stores without checking out, “ambient” intelligence that’s embedded into people’s everyday lives, its home-monitoring robot Astro, machine-assisted coding, and ventures into space.