HomeEthics & SocietyAI-narrated audiobooks are here – and so they raise some serious ethical questions

AI-narrated audiobooks are here – and so they raise some serious ethical questions

Meet Madison and Jackson, the AI narrators or “digital voices” soon to be reading among the audiobooks on Apple Books. They sound nothing like Siri or Alexa or the voice telling you concerning the unexpected item within the bagging area of your supermarket checkout. They sound warm, natural, animated. They sound real.

With their advanced levels of realism, Apple’s latest AI voices present the real possibility that the listener might be unaware of their artificiality. Even the phrase utilized in Apple’s catalogues of digitally-narrated audiobooks – “that is an Apple Books audiobook narrated by a digital voice based on a human narrator” – is ambiguous. It’s not clear from this phrase who or what’s doing the narrating.

This ambiguity signifies that it will be possible so that you can download an audiobook voiced by Jackson, start listening and think (for those who give it some thought in any respect) that the voice you hear is that of a voice actor. But does this matter?

If the listener is wholly unaware that the narrator is digital, this raises among the many ethical questions (resembling that of consent) that arise at any time when users are unaware that they’re interacting with an AI-driven technology, moderately than with an individual.

The more complicated – and more interesting – problem, nonetheless, arises after we are each aware and unaware of their artificiality. When you hearken to an AI narrator, you could know that you just are interacting with an artificially intelligent entity. But, as so a lot of us already do with chatbots, many listeners will partially suspend this awareness and project ideas of personhood onto the digital voice, somewhat as we do for these books’ fictional characters.

Disruptor deception

Most worryingly, Apple’s marketing language is engaging in its own type of pretence in presenting the “digital voice” technology as harmless. The Apple Books for Authors audiobook information page emphasises the technology’s potential for democratising audiobook creation and plays down the impact on human actors. Indeed, the web site explicitly positions the technology as being on the side of the little guy – Apple claims to be “empowering indie authors and small publishers”.

This pretence ultimately operates by capitalising on the multiple meanings of the word “heard”. Apple claims that “only a fraction of books are converted to audio – leaving tens of millions inaccessible to readers preferring audiobooks, whether by selection or necessity”. Apple’s statement that “Every book deserves to be heard” is an especially canny selection given its built-in associations with democratic representation and inclusivity.

Apple didn’t reply to our request for comment before publication.

It’s actually the case that using digital narration signifies that authors don’t shoulder the financial costs or time burden of narrating the books themselves. And, indeed, this implies more people can produce audiobooks.

Apple Books was launched in 2010.
Tada Images/Shutterstock

But in potentially eroding the livelihood of one other sort of small operator (the voice artist), the brand new digital narration technology doesn’t a lot get up for the little guy as set the interests of two different little guys against one another.

In an additional twist, the datasets used to coach Apple’s digital voices have, in some cases, been reported to incorporate the work of existing voice artists, drawing their considerable indignation.

In presenting itself as disrupting “big audiobook” and favouring small players, Apple’s marketing follows a recognisable trope. This involves a technological “disruptor” touting the flexibility of individual operators to take part in previously closed-off areas of business activity without passing on the company profits made through such “inclusivity”.

What is maybe unsettling about this latest technology, then, isn’t the unfamiliarity of its powers however the familiar ring of “platform capitalism” – when big firms provide the technology for others to operate.

The frequently-sued Uber and the frequently-banned Airbnb have by now lost much of their sheen as engines of accessibility. Their initial identity, nonetheless, was grounded in using democratic rhetoric, from Uber telling potential drivers “you’re in charge”, to AirBnB’s claim to be founded in “connection and belonging”.

A woman looking at airbnb on her iPad.

Airbnb has lost much of its sheen as an engine of accessibility.
Daniel Krason/Shutterstock

So using pseudo-altruistic language by tech disruptors is nothing latest. What is latest is the window onto this seductive fiction offered by the encounter with AI narrators. After all, the self-deception involved in assuming that your narrator is human parallels, in some ways, the self-deception required to imagine that Apple’s digital voice technology is an altruistic development.

Reflecting on the connection between these acts of imagination is mandatory because, so often, it’s easier simply to imagine. It’s easier simply to imagine that your Uber driver is there for the flexibleness, that your Airbnb host is only a neighbourhood guy moderately than a property conglomerate that owns half the road.

It’s easier to imagine, but it surely’s not all the time easy to discover and understand the dynamics of this belief. The experience of listening to an artificially-intelligent narrator might help us catch our own brains within the act of self-deception – including the act of shopping for AI-narrated audiobooks because a marketing website tells us it’s the democratic thing to do.


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