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Why Scarlett Johansson Was “Shocked and Angered” by OpenAI’s Latest Voice Feature

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 27: Scarlett Johansson attends the 2024 White House Correspondents' Dinner at...
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Scarlett Johansson will not be voicing a new AI feature, nor will any ScarJo impersonators, after a legal dustup with OpenAI. The latest version of the company’s paradigm-shifting chatbot, ChatGPT 4-o, has been rolling out over the last month, and one feature in particular, ‘Sky’—a futuristic, Alexa-like voice assistant that converses with users at an intimate level never before reached through technology—sounded an awful lot like Johansson.

Specifically, Sky was uncannily reminiscent of Johansson’s character in Spike Jonze’s 2013 film Her—in which Joaquin Phoenix plays a man who falls in love with a near-sentient virtual assistant, Samantha, voiced by Johansson.

Johansson’s husband, Colin Jost, drew attention to the feature on Saturday Night Live’s season finale, in a Weekend Update segment in which hosts Jost and Michael Che wrote jokes for each other. “ChatGPT has released a new voice assistant feature inspired by Scarlett Johansson’s A.I. character in Her. Which I’ve never bothered to watch because without that body, what’s the point of listening?” Jost quipped.

The feature was subsequently pulled from ChatGPT 4-o the Monday after SNL’s broadcast, but since then, more details have come to light surrounding the incident.

In a statement, Johansson wrote that OpenAI CEO Sam Altman initially approached her to voice Sky, an opportunity she turned down. OpenAI then hired an actor who sounded just like her, a move with far-reaching implications for future uses of AI.

"Last September, I received an offer from Sam Altman, who wanted to hire me to voice the current ChatGPT 4.0 system," Johansson wrote. "He told me that he felt that by my voicing the system, I could bridge the gap between tech companies and creatives and help consumers to feel comfortable with the seismic shift concerning humans and AI. He said he felt that my voice would be comforting to people."

She continued: “After much consideration and for personal reasons, I declined the offer. Nine months later, my friends, family and the general public all noted how much the newest system named 'Sky' sounded like me. When I heard the released demo, I was shocked, angered and in disbelief that Mr. Altman would pursue a voice that sounded so eerily similar to mine that my closest friends and news outlets could not tell the difference."

(Upon release, the chatbot had five voice options, with Sky being one of them. Each was voiced by a professional actor, whose identities OpenAI is keeping private).

In a statement on Monday, OpenAI said that ‘Sky’ was not an “imitation” of Johansson’s voice. However, as Johansson pointed out in her statement, Altman undermined the credibility of that claim by tweeting out the word “her” on the day of the product announcement.

"Two days before the ChatGPT 4.0 demo was released,” Johansson continued, “Mr. Altman contacted my agent, asking me to reconsider. Before we could connect, the system was out there. As a result of their actions, I was forced to hire legal counsel, who wrote two letters to Mr. Altman and OpenAI, setting out what they had done and asking them to detail the exact process by which they created the 'Sky' voice. Consequently, OpenAI reluctantly agreed to take down the 'Sky' voice."

She ended the statement with a summary of the consequences AI’s use might have on the creative industries, an issue which so many are currently grappling with as the tech world races to create the most advanced models yet: "In a time when we are all grappling with deepfakes and the protection of our own likeness, our own work, our own identities, I believe these are questions that deserve absolute clarity,” she wrote. “I look forward to resolution in the form of transparency and the passage of appropriate legislation to help ensure that individual rights are protected.”

In a written statement provided to NBC News by a spokesperson, Altman said, "The voice of Sky is not Scarlett Johansson’s, and it was never intended to resemble hers. We cast the voice actor behind Sky’s voice before any outreach to Ms. Johansson. Out of respect for Ms. Johansson, we have paused using Sky’s voice in our products. We are sorry to Ms. Johansson that we didn’t communicate better."

The proliferation of voice technology has sparked fear around its use in misinformation and propaganda campaigns, in addition to the concerns of creatives whose work is at risk of being replaced or ripped off by AI. The use of actors’s likenesses by AI, and the use of AI in general in lieu of paid work by creatives like writers (and in adjacent fields, musicians, VFX specialists, graphic designers, and more) was a central issue of summer’s Hollywood strikes. In a statement on Tuesday, a spokesperson for the SAG-AFTRA union said that it supported Johansson.

"We thank Ms. Johansson for speaking out on this issue of crucial importance to all SAG-AFTRA members," the spokesperson told NBC. "We share in her concerns and fully support her right to have clarity and transparency regarding the voice used in developing the Chat GPT-4o appliance 'Sky.' We are pleased that Open AI has responded to these concerns and paused their use of 'Sky,' and we look forward to working with them and other industry stakeholders to enshrine transparent and resilient protections for all of us.”

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