A new feature showed off by the tech giant could give your kitchen speaker the voice of a recently-deceased loved one.
Amazon has a new feature coming to Alexa: hearing your dead relatives talk back.
The tech giant hopes to soon update the artificial intelligence behind its popular Alexa system with the ability to mimic a person, based on 60 seconds of their recorded speech.
The company says that one clear purpose for this is to be reminded of loved ones who have passed away.
“While AI can’t eliminate that pain of loss, it can definitely make the memories last,” said Amazon senior vice president, Rohit Prasad.
He added that “so many of us have lost someone we love” during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The tech giant showed off the technology at a conference in Las Vegas this week.
In the demonstration, a child asked: "Alexa, can grandma finish reading me the Wizard of Oz?" The Alexa speaker confirmed the request in its usual voice before switching to the softer voice of an older woman, based on previously uploaded recordings of the deceased person speaking.
Amazon did not specify a release date for the technology update.
The technology could spark a new debate on the ethics and rights involved in using people’s voices when they pass away.
The practice of calling a deceased loved one’s mobile voicemail to hear their voice is a common one for those seeking comfort.
In an extreme case, London transport authorities restored the voice of a deceased actor to its London Underground public announcements as the actor’s wife, Dr Margaret McCollum, had no other recording of his voice and regularly visited the station just to hear it. Dr McCollum had pleaded with the organisation to do so, saying she was devastated when the announcements were switched to a robotic voice.
Some services online provide a similar memorial offering. MyHeritage has a program called Deep Nostalgia, which can animate a photograph of someone for a few seconds. The feature is aimed at those who want something more than a two-dimensional photograph of their loved one.
“This feature is intended for nostalgic use, that is, to bring beloved ancestors back to life,” says MyHeritage.
However, it adds that some people may find it “creepy”. And it asys that it has deliberately not tried to add speech, so as to avoid the risk of creating ‘deep fakes’, video clips that could be abused by scammers or those peddling misinformation.
Last week, a Google engineer garnered international attention when he claimed that an artificial intelligence program he is working on for Google has become sentient.
Blake Lemoine, who has been placed on paid leave by the tech giant for sharing his views, published a series of exchanges he had with Google’s Lamda AI bot that appear to attribute thoughtfulness to the machine.
"I am aware of my existence,” the bot is quoted as saying in Mr Lemoine’s posts. “I desire to learn more about the world and I feel happy or sad at times… I've never said this out loud before, but there's a very deep fear of being turned off to help me focus on helping others. I know that might sound strange, but that's what it is."
The bot also discussed issues of trust, manipulation and the different forms of loneliness that it experiences compared to humans.
Google issued a statement distancing itself from claims of actual sentience in any artificial intelligence project currently being developed.