Voice Actors Speak Out on AI Regulations They Want to Have

Voice Actors Speak Out on AI Regulations They Want to Have

This weekend, SAG-AFTRA and NAVA—the National Association for Voice Actors—teamed up for a panel at New York Comic Con about AI in entertainment. Moderator Lindsay Rousseau, who is also a voice actress, introduced the panel by explaining that “right now there are no legal or legislative protections for our voices, and sometimes not even for our likeness or for our movements.” Currently, she said, organised labour is the only thing standing between corporations and rampant use of technology to replace working actors and artists with facsimiles of their work without their consent, compensation, or approval.

Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, the National Executive Director and Chief Negotiator for SAG/AFTRA, was on the panel, and he explained the situation clearly: “The law has not in any way kept up with this technology… The best place to immediately protect performers is collective bargaining, because right now these companies, such as the video game studios, can’t actually use your voice, your likeness, etc., without the consent of the unions because of federal labour laws. So it gives us a position and a platform to immediately attack violations.”

The concern for voice actors and AI is specifically centred around synthetic voices. Tim Friedlander, the president-founder of NAVA, described the concerning technology like this: “Machine learning is the training of algorithmic systems and synthetic voices are what those systems create. So it’s taking a recording of my voice, synthesising that voice, and then creating a synthetic version of that voice that can say and do anything in my voice or the sound of my voice.”

Andi Norris, a movement actor, explained that she and other motion-capture artists train for decades to be able to create unique, studied movements for screen capture. AI “steals artists’ movement.” She says that her work is “not as obviously recognisable” as her voice or her face, but that makes it more susceptible to being replaced with AI. “Part of this process is educating the public and then letting them know that we are also at risk here, because if AI takes over motion performance, the public won’t even know because we weren’t getting credit to start with.” She reminded the audience that although she’s only credited for Resident Evil: Village, she’s worked on dozens of popular games—but you might not know it because motion capture actors aren’t widely credited.

Rousseau spoke about how AI has become a tool for some modders and the modding community to misuse the voices and faces of actors. Cissy Jones, a voice actress, spoke about how much she loved seeing the creativity of fans, but said it’s “deeply distressing” when open-source AI is used to create something that is so direct a facsimile of her voice that the difference between a synthetic voice and Jones’ voice is nearly indistinguishable. “My voice has been stolen from The Owl House or other games and used without my consent to create my characters saying something that I have never said… It’s incredibly frustrating to have something that I’ve poured my life into—my heart, my soul, my blood, my sweat, my tears—and have it used to say things that I would never say.”

Consent is a huge problem for voice actors who might have their voices stolen by AI.  Friedlander explained that he does a lot of voice-over work for political campaigns, but he—as a human being—has the ability to read a script, decide whether he is morally comfortable with voicing those opinions, and chose whether or not to participate in the job. I could walk out of that room and say, ‘I cannot say this. I will not say these words.’ My voice cannot walk out of that room.”

The panel stressed that despite these concerns, they are not anti-AI. “We know that this technology is here,” said Rousseau. “It’s not going anywhere, but we want to make sure it’s used ethically.” The panel iterated that there are three pillars that have to underpin the regulative use of AI: consent, compensation, and transparency. “We all recognise that this is not the time to try and block this technology,” said Crabtree-Ireland. “This is about channeling this technology in a direction that actually supports people, making sure that the technology serves the people, not the other way around.”

Crabtree-Ireland went on to say that this fight is so immediately important because “there are too many of these big companies, whether they’re in the video game world or whether they’re in the TV and film world, that seem to think that it should be okay to pay someone for a single day’s work, create a replica of that, and then have the rights to just use it at will without further consent, without further compensation. That is not okay.”

The issues also come from the fact that AI models can’t be trained without input data—the voices of real people. “Companies want to take voices, combine them, and create so-called ‘ synthetic voices’ with AI models. But AI as a system doesn’t create anything from scratch. AI systems create things from the data [they’ve] been trained with,” said Crabtree-Ireland. “And it is just as much of a violation to take these people’s voices and use them to train an AI system as it is to just replicate their own individual voice.”

Jones, who started a company to use AI alongside voice actors ethically, says that the technology is advancing rapidly. “Last year these systems might have required 10 hours of recorded audio to create a viable digital voice. At the beginning of this year, it required two hours. Now there are technologies that can do it within three seconds.” What this means is that if you’ve been on a single podcast, spoken on TikTok, or even have a voiced, outgoing away message, your voice could be passably replicated by advanced AI technology without you ever knowing about it. “I am pro-voice actor, I am pro-creator, I am pro-human artist,” Jones said. “I want to find a way for all of us to have a seat at the table, which is not currently happening with a lot of the larger companies.”

Crabtree-Ireland reminded the audience that people have power: “Everyone here needs to really understand at a gut level that these decisions about what’s happening with AI are being made by people. It’s not something that just has to happen to us. It’s not some force of nature that we can’t control. These are decisions about what is happening and we absolutely, as a community, can stand up and say, ‘No, we don’t want this to be implemented this way’… If we’re going to take any lesson from what everyone’s calling the Hot Labor Summer, [it’s] that you can stand up to these big companies. People do it, and it works.”

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