Last night BBC Front Row discussed questions raised by the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) to enhance, extend, and replace human actors. This followed hot off the heels of the BBC report last week that Equity, the performing arts workers union, had launched 'Stop AI Stealing The Show' - a campaign around performers’ rights over Artificial Intelligence (AI). There’s an urgency in the debate which is creating uncertainty in the VO industry, with many asking the question: are actors’ livelihoods at risk?
Here at BRAVA we’ve been involved with a range of AI projects including our recent 'Living Shakespeare' (below), so we asked Creative Technologist and long-time client and collaborator, Kerry Harrison, for her thoughts on how AI is changing the VO industry.
BRAVA & Tiny Giant's experimental Living Shakespeare project
How can voice actors avoid losing out to AI?
By Kerry Harrison
Today, AI is being used across the creative industries in a variety of ways. From crafting works of art, to generating text and creating voice overs, to delivering synthetic presenters that can report on any topic. The opportunities appear to be endless. And these services are getting better all the time.
Over the last 3 years, I’ve seen some of these AI advancements for myself. I’ve co-created an AI festival curator and the world’s first AI gin, developed an AI-generated Queen’s Speech for Wired Magazine and collaborated with BRAVA founder and voice actor, Melissa Thom, on a project called PLaiTH. This experimental project involved us creating AI-generated poetry in the style of Sylvia Plath and delivering a live performance of the final pieces. All great fun.
AI and content creation
During this time, I’ve also seen how AI is impacting my 20-year role as an advertising copywriter. Back in 2018, AI copywriting tools were underwhelming. But today, things are very different. The introduction of the AI text-generation platform GPT-3 in 2020 completely changed the landscape. And now AI copywriting platforms are not only commonplace but also pretty good.
I see similar advancements happening in the field of voiceovers too. According to the BBC report, in a survey of 430 Equity members, 93% of audio artists felt that AI posed a threat to their employment opportunities. And you can see why.
In one of my recent client projects, I used the AI platform Natural Readers to create a voice over. I had a choice of some fairly decent voices – male, female, young, old, American, English. And I found one that (just about) did the job. In the same way, you can now use Google Play Books, an AI-narrated audiobook creation tool, to turn e-books into audio books in just a few simple steps. There are countless other examples.
Look beyond the scaremongering headlines
Whether we like it or not, AI is going to replace some of the work we do. And being afraid of this isn’t going to help. To be successful creatives today, I believe we must look beyond the scaremongering headlines and start looking at the AI tools around us. We have to try them, explore them, and build an understanding of AI for ourselves. Just like the BRAVA team are already doing.
Understanding AI is key for our future in the creative industries
Don’t get me wrong, I’m no computer scientist or Python coding queen. But I have taken it upon myself to gain an understanding of AI. I’ve read books, been to events, and worked directly with AI technology – playing with its creative possibilities. More recently I’ve spoken at universities and tech events, using AI art-making as a vehicle for opening discussions around AI. The thing is: if we are to navigate what’s coming and call out bad practice, we have to understand what we’re up against first.
Campaigning for new copyright laws
Of course, the fear and understanding of AI isn’t the only problem here. The Equity campaign is very much focused on protecting performers’ rights. It’s about ensuring the copyright laws can "keep pace with technological development”. This is a real concern for any creative in the AI era. Actors have had their voices reproduced without permission, celebrities like Jay-Z have had to fight against ‘deep fakes’ and artists have questioned the ownership of famous AI-generated works of art.
For many of us, regulation isn’t coming quick enough. AI is developing at speed – and legal reforms can’t happen at the same pace. Campaigns like Equity’s "Stop AI Stealing the Show" are vital in keeping up the pressure on the government, but they’re not going to bring change overnight. As the government told the BBC: “Our national AI strategy has a ten-year vision for seizing the opportunities of the technology and we will set out our approach to its governance in due course”.
So what next?
While the government is implementing its ten-year vision, what can creatives do?
For me, it comes back to knowledge. While we’re waiting for legal reform, we can continue boosting our own knowledge of AI, become aware of the pitfalls – and take steps to protect our own work. As BRAVA founder, Melissa Thom, said:
‘I often work with AI companies on experimental projects and see where the creative journey takes us. Collaborations like these help me learn more about the field of AI for VO and where it might be heading. But it’s important to have trust between you and the client. Currently, I would only work with AI companies where I am clear about where and how my voice will be used.’
Standing up for human creative talents
Ultimately, AI will replace some of our work. But whether we work with it, or outside it, there’s still a need for human talent. There will always be businesses who want to do things cheaply – and AI tools like the ones I‘ve mentioned provide an option for them. But I believe there will still be a demand for human expertise, especially from those businesses who appreciate quality. It will be some time before AI can produce the depth, nuance and range that experienced human voice actors bring to the table.
Let’s be open to the opportunities that AI can bring, while simultaneously pushing for its responsible implementation. While the laws play catch up, let’s continue developing our own knowledge. So we can call out nefarious behaviour. Confidently question our contracts. And take control over where and how our brilliant human creative talents are used.