Ethics and Ownership of AI-Powered Identities

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This article was contributed by Taesu Kim, CEO of Neosapience

With the tremendous advances in how AI/ML technologies are deployed, one of the most exciting, controversial and rapidly evolving developments has been in the human voice. One specific example stands out as encapsulating the complex of issues and emotions associated with AI-powered voices.

Last summer, AI technology was used to give voice to some of the late Anthony Bourdain’s writings, words he never spoke or read aloud, yet belonged to him; speech cloning technology brought the text to life in Roadrunner: a film about Anthony Bourdain. Some in the audience felt cheated that it wasn’t really Bourdain, others thought the move was a misstep because Bourdain wasn’t alive to give permission to manipulate his voice in such a way, while many felt it was just a creative storytelling device.

The Bourdain example highlights two key issues that will come to the fore when using AI-based speech technologies in the future. On the one hand, there are questions about who owns a vote, and thus control over how it can be used now and in the future. On the other hand, there is the ethical issue: is it morally right to allow someone’s voice to be used in the public domain after his or her death when he or she has no control over how it will be used or what is said?


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These questions are surfacing as AI-based speech technology is really taking off; an enormous amount of time and money has been spent on research and development to make machine-generated voices sound ‘real’. They are now able to convey the emotions, texture, cadence, as well as the natural rise and fall and many other distinct marks that characterize human speech (not to mention the song). This is groundbreaking because it has become difficult for listeners to tell the difference between human speech and that of a machine.

As such, we have reached a defining moment in the development of technology where we must come up with basic guidelines and put in place guardrails, or like so many technologies before it, the applications of speech technology will be used in ways they were never intended.

Ownership of digital identities

We have become a global society that craves rich content experiences, be it through film, television and streaming services or user-generated media such as YouTube and TikTok. And soon, the metaverse will offer even more new ways to interact with content. All of these capabilities open up huge opportunities for AI-powered voice and video. AI-powered speech and video make it exponentially faster, easier and cheaper to create content, not to mention adapting for other languages. These technologies are also highly accessible through text-to-speech services, so essentially anyone can use AI to create content without the need for a studio and lots of fancy equipment, fueling high demand in the entertainment industry.

At the same time, there is a lot of fear surrounding owning and monetizing one’s virtual identity. In a world of deep forgeries, misrepresentations and identity theft, it’s fair for individuals to wonder what happens when someone co-opts their digital identity for their own ends. Not only would the individual lose control of how his or her image is deployed, as well as any revenue or brand recognition that comes with it, but it could be used in inappropriate, even illegal, ways — or so the thinking goes.

However, this is very unlikely. Every human voice, as well as every face, has its own unique footprint, made up of tens of thousands to millions of features. With advanced fraud detection and management technologies in development, AI-powered identities can be secured with relative ease. What’s much more complicated, however, is managing that digital identity over time. It is not just about business, but a series of ethical decisions that are inextricably linked.

The Ethics of Virtual Representation and AI-Powered Identities

Did the director have to use Bourdain’s digitized voice in his film? The director would have been given permission to use his AI-cloned voice to deliver the rules in question, but from whom? Who ultimately has the right to decide?

Likewise, the AI-powered voice of famed South Korean folk rock singer Kim Kwang-Seok was recently used to: release a new song. The artist has been dead for 25 years, but a broadcaster struck a deal with the artist’s family to use AI to clone his voice and use it for something entirely new, much to the delight of the public. There are many other cases of entertainment companies and content creators who want to bring back the voice and likeness of famous people for concerts or movies. But is it ethical?

On the face of it, it’s something that can be tackled easily enough by determining licensing agreements and contracts with the entertainer’s estate or, ideally, while the performer is still alive. As the practice becomes more common, we must be prepared to see some sort of name, image, voice, likeness clause in one’s will, especially one that regulates their posthumous wishes or appoints a manager to oversee their career. virtual self – much like they have a business manager in life.

Virtual identities aren’t just for celebs

It’s one thing for celebrities to consider such content and management deals, but what about regular, ordinary people? Perhaps those who mourn loved ones, like this woman who lost her young daughter to an illness? Upon meeting in a virtual reality environment, the woman was able to connect with her daughter in avatar form, seemingly travel to some version of heaven and throw a birthday party. The experience is clearly very meaningful to the young mother and her family, but the interaction is not real in any way. Some companies – as well as consumers – do not want to play a part in developing such experiences because it requires liberties regarding the child’s likeness and personality, while others see an opportunity to bring comfort and closure to families in pain.

And what about creating new virtual experiences for educational purposes, such as the award-winning Interactive Holograms: Survival Story Experience? At a time when students and citizens are wondering whether the Holocaust was real or what being a Nazi really meant, isn’t there room to use such technology for good? Which rules are appropriate in terms of creative license?

Towards an AI-powered future with AI-powered identities

There are no easy answers when it comes to a virtual or AI-powered identity. We are on the cusp of an entirely new way of content creation, where both famous and ordinary people will soon be asked to think about how their voice and image can be used, not just today, but long after they are gone.

Virtual identity will become a currency to be considered as similar to their physical assets, one in which they can specify their life and death wishes, and appoint managers and executors to approve its use in the future. This may sound far-fetched, but digital voices don’t age, and neither do avatars. Now that the metaverse is becoming mainstream, our virtual selves can live well beyond our years.

It will become a new necessity that everyone sets the parameters and clearly defines what he or she feels comfortable with in terms of their digital identity. Likewise, the companies providing platforms for AI-powered voice and video creation need to develop clear policies for the adoption and use of a specific virtual AI-powered identity. By doing so, individuals and businesses alike are protected from sliding down a slippery slope as highly disruptive AI-powered virtual identities become normalized.

Taesu Kim is the CEO of Neosapience

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