Scarlett Johansson versus OpenAI: Human rights at stake

OpenAI’s Sky is just the latest example in a long history of female-voiced assistants—including Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana.  (AFP)
OpenAI’s Sky is just the latest example in a long history of female-voiced assistants—including Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana. (AFP)

Summary

  • OpenAI is accused of stealing the American actor's voice as if her consent is irrelevant. By taking the company on, the star of ‘Her’ is reminding the tech firm that it's dealing with a powerful woman, not a deferential chatbot.

When OpenAI demoed its new artificial intelligence assistant Sky last week, the company’s engineers made sure to showcase the attributes that they thought made it seem uncannily life-like.

The female-sounding voice they conversed with was ego-stroking (“Wow, that’s quite the outfit you’ve got on!"); accommodating and subservient (“How can I brighten your day today?"); flirty and giggly (“Oh, stop it, you’re making me blush!"). The company had even added a feature that allowed users to interrupt the model (“You can just butt in whenever you want," noted one of the presenters).

If this is OpenAI’s idea of how an actual human woman should behave, it’s no wonder the company thought it could get away with using a voice that sounded alarmingly close to that of actress Scarlett Johansson —without her permission.

In a statement released Monday, Johansson said that OpenAI CEO Sam Altman had twice tried to hire her to voice this latest version of ChatGPT. The first time she said ‘no’; the second time, she didn’t even have time to respond before the company released the demo.

“I was shocked, angered and in disbelief that Mr. Altman would pursue a voice that sounded so eerily similar to mine," Johansson wrote.

Johansson got herself a lawyer, and OpenAI has since taken down the Sky voice. The company said it “was never intended to resemble" Johansson’s, but Altman had already shown his hand. On the day the demo was released, he tweeted “her," the title of a movie in which Johansson voices an intelligent chatbot. And during the event, one of the engineers asked ChatGPT to tell a bedtime story about love and robots (weird, but okay), which is pretty much the plot of the film.

Also read: Scarlett Johansson Hired Lawyers to Push Back on ‘Eerily Similar’ OpenAI Voice

It seems that even chatbots can’t escape gender bias. OpenAI’s Sky is just the latest example in a long history of female-voiced assistants—including Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana. They reliably and politely put together shopping lists, set alarms to make sure you get where you need to be on time, make your phone calls, and even entertain your children. They’re doing the kind of labour we expect women to take on both at work and at home, all while teaching the next generation that this is what women do.

Altman treated Johansson as he would his AI assistant, assuming she would happily do his bidding without pushback. He sorely miscalculated; Johansson, one of the world’s highest paid actresses, is not going to put together anyone’s shopping list. Her anger and willingness to fight for what she’s owed is refreshingly at odds with the kind of stereotypes that OpenAI and its brethren perpetuate.

It’s not the first time Johansson has taken on a company that has defied her. In 2021, she sued Walt Disney Company, alleging that the company had breached her Black Widow contract by releasing the action movie on its streaming platform while it still played in theatres. 

Johansson, who was supposed to get a cut of box office ticket sales, argued that the move deprived her of potential earnings. She took legal action after the company basically ignored her, reportedly failing to respond to her initial offer or return calls and emails from her team.

Also read: How Disney and Scarlett Johansson reached the point of no return

Disney and Johansson settled, but not before the entertainment giant put out a statement saying that the suit was “especially sad and distressing in its callous disregard for the horrific and prolonged global effects" of the pandemic.

Altman too tried to shame Johansson, telling her that hearing her voice would “help consumers feel comfortable" with AI. Both Disney and OpenAI ignored her and made the case that she should buck up and be a team player—it’s hard to imagine them giving the same treatment to one of Hollywood’s leading men (to say nothing of the companies’ own “for the greater good" bona fides).

Johansson now has a track record of fighting for what’s rightfully hers, and her willingness to do it so publicly and unapologetically is helping check a powerful tech company in a way those with less money and agency cannot. It’s a move that puts Johansson in the same camp as Taylor Swift, who withheld her music from Apple and Spotify when she felt that their terms hurt artists, especially those who had not reached her level of stardom.

In trying to humanize its artificial intelligence chatbots, OpenAI [may have] made the mistake of dehumanizing a woman by stealing her voice—and an even bigger error in crossing one who could actually do something about it. Johansson is reminding this tech company of what it looks like to deal with a powerful woman, not a deferential chatbot. ©bloomberg

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