Audiobook narrators used their voices to train Apple AI

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Starling believes that Findaway has misused the content entrusted to it by authors and narrators. “This is immoral and illegal,” Starling told WIRED, adding that “the rights are only copyrighted to the audiobook production, but there is no claim to the narrator’s voice.” She is pausing the release of three upcoming titles she plans to distribute through Findaway.

Interest in automating book narrative art has grown in recent years due to business and technology. While book and e-book revenues have declined, audiobook revenues have continued to grow, and artificial voice technology has improved significantly. A variety of tools have been developed that allow anyone to create synthetic narrative voices with a click, but companies still need a large amount of data to develop them.

In industries such as entertainment and gaming, contracts requiring voice actors to allow their AI models to generate digital narration on their work are becoming increasingly common, said Tim Friedlander, president of the US-based National Association of Voice Actors. Adobe, the maker of Photoshop and other imaging software, has recently begun training its own AI algorithms on visual creative tasks unless they opt out.

“The voice is a way for voice actors to make a living,” Friedlander added, “and that’s taking the words out of our mouths without our permission.”

Google started offering free artificial narration for books in 2020. When Apple announced its own collection of digital audiobook narrators in January, the company said it hoped to eliminate the “cost and complexity” that human-translated audiobooks can represent for small publishers. Independent authors. The company’s Books app lists titles with AI narration “narrated by a digital voice based on a human narrator.”

Apple has used artificial voice technology for years, including the Siri virtual assistant, driving directions and accessibility features. But some authors and narrators doubt that the audio from their e-books has helped the company develop its technology into the task of narrating complex books. The length of audiobooks, the complexity of the material, and the incredible abilities of skilled narrators make audiobooks a formidable challenge for artificial voice technology.

Applying synthetic voices to books brings new business and cultural challenges. “Many of the companies developing these AI technologies come from the technology sector rather than the entertainment sector,” said SAG-AFTRA’s Love. “Voice actors don’t have the relationships, the history of protection, and the trust in endorsements that they expect.”

Several authors told WIRED that Findaway has emerged as a trusted distributor, offering lucrative deals for listing audiobooks on multiple platforms. But Findaway says it often prompts people to agree to updated agreements with minor changes when they log into their accounts. The company added a machine learning clause to its distribution agreement in 2019.

Many suspect that they unwittingly signed the machine learning clause. “It’s up to me that we don’t notice the addition and the meaning at first,” says Laura VanArendenk Baugh, an author based in Indianapolis, Indiana. But the classification was also tricky.

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