AI technology could replace actors — this is what they think about it

EVERYTHING these days is becoming automatic, from self-service checkouts to self-driving cars, jobs are being taken away from real people.

One job that always felt secure was acting. Conveying human emotion isn’t easy for humans to do, let alone robots.

AI technology could replace actors — this is what they think about it
The Ascent uses AI technology for its voice acting.

However, one company, Altered AI, hopes to break through this barrier, promising to give game developers the tools to “create compelling, professional voice performances.”

Currently, around 20 professional voice actors have lent their work to the database, with hundreds more “common” voices fleshing out its library.

Developers can submit a recording of what they want to say, and the AI will create a “performance”.

Likewise you can input an actor’s performance and then change the tone or the voice type—this includes changing a male actor’s voice and making it sound female.

Speaking to GLHF, Ioannis Agiomyrgiannakis, the CEO of the company says: “I never believed in human replacement.”

He likens the technology more to a tool that can be used alongside real human professionals.

However, games such as The Ascent are already being created with the help of AI voices.

Ninja Theory, developer of the upcoming Hellblade 2: Senua’s Saga, has also formed a partnership with Altered AI, though the deal remains under wraps.

There may be many more big names than this. NDAs often prevent parties from revealing there is a partnership, especially when the contents are as controversial as this.

He explains: “What we are making are tools that allow people to do performances by themselves.

“There’s a gap between how the writer imagines the dialogue, and how the dialogue plays out. 

“We provide an intermediate step where they can prototype the dialogue and have a checkpoint before they hit the studio.”

It doesn’t sound like AI will be the way to autotune an actor’s performance, but we’re no experts.

So we spoke to some people who are: professional video game voice actors.

Sarah Elmaleh, the actor for Lizzie Carmine from Gears of War 5, had some interesting insight on the subject.

She says: “Maybe you’re familiar with line reads – saying the line the way you think you want it to sound so the actor can copy it.

“Line reads are usually an unfortunate last-ditch failure of direction, and ‘copying’ usually sounds dead on its feet. 

“When you hire an actor, you get so much more than a sound. Great dialogue doesn’t just come from the mouth, it comes first from the heart. 

“Some of the most wonderful moments in a session are when an actor surprises you and maybe even themselves with a deeply motivated choice you never expected.”

Roger Clark of Red Dead Redemption 2 fame has similar concerns.

He says: “I feel AI is a viable solution for some, but I’d be lying if there weren’t some concerns as to how it may impact actors and their capacity to work.

“I feel that humanity can not be digitised. We are all experts on being human and can sniff out imitations with impressive speed and accuracy. 

“I know we have all speculated the potential damage that could do – legally, financially, and reputably.

“When two or more actors are working together and have a genuine connection, it’s magical.”

In story-driven games like Firewatch, the chemistry between the two main characters is what truly makes the game. 

As all the dialogue takes place over a walkie-talkie, the voice actors had to put in the work to exhibit the emotions that their unseen faces couldn’t.

Cissy Jones, who plays Delilah in Firewatch, explains: “A human performance is at the heart of great games.

“A synthetic performance is soulless by definition, thus losing the art, the collaboration, the creative spark that comes from people working together to create the narrative and emotional immersion that gamers and broader audiences deserve. 

“The reason people hire voice actors is because we bring the unexpected. We make words on a page come to life. That’s the magic.” 

Caitlyn Oenbrick Rainey used to work in voice acting, but now works for Altered AI.

According to Rainey, the tech is focused on the prosody of the performance and can transfer the pitch, the dynamic, and even the energy of a line read. 

The technology can, will, and probably already does go further than merely altering performers’ lines.

Voicing NPCs and background characters using AI would significantly reduce development costs, without impairing the game’s immersion dramatically.

Agiomyrgiannakis claims this technology could create work for actors, as developers who were originally using text bubbles for speech can instead use the AI technology.

The AI is created using the voices of real professional actors, who, despite being anonymous, are reportedly award-winning.

He says: “We hide them. We’ve hidden them so hard that we don’t even know. We never got exposed to their names.”

They’ve remained anonymous over fears that their fellow actors will admonish them for decreasing their opportunities to work in the industry.

He continues: “Bloggers didn’t kill the newspapers. YouTubers didn’t kill the TV. People just consume more nowadays.” 

However, many performers got their start in these smaller background roles.

Without these minor parts to bulk out their resume and casting reels, they may have never got noticed for larger roles.

Elias Toufexis from The Expanse explains: “AI works for minor game performances, but it still doesn’t work for real performance.

“Go watch the Boba Fett episode with Luke Skywalker in it – his whole vocal performance is AI and it’s terrible. 

“If they need it for ‘grenade!’ and ‘get down!’ in Call of Duty-type games, it’s fine. 

“It’s going to hurt a bunch of new voice actors, though, because that’s a window in for a lot of us.”

Ashly Burch, who voices Aloy from Horizon Zero Dawn, also doesn’t know just how successful the AI will be.

She says: “I completely understand the desire for affordable voice over (VO) for indie developers.

“What I think a lot of people don’t know is that SAG-AFTRA (the American actors’ union) has a low-budget agreement to address this issue. 

“It’s specifically designed so indie developers can get access to quality VO without breaking the bank.

“Artistically, you’re never going to get a truly dynamic and compelling performance from an AI. A few combat barks? Maybe. 

“But if you’re looking for something human and nuanced and alive, AI isn’t going to cut it. 

“Low-budget or smaller titles are where a lot of new VO folks get their start. If devs transition to AI, an entire entry point for young artists is being squeezed out.” 

Agiomyrgiannakis sees new actors starting out working for AI companies, rather than taking these background roles.

As it stands now, actors aren’t receiving credit for their roles in AI as they choose to remain anonymous.

There are other concerns about how the new tech will influence the industry.

We have already seen companies splash out promoting their games through streamers, while cutting costs in the game’s production.

Contracts are changing. Often they have clauses where actors have to sign over their voices and likenesses for life.

Combined with the new AI technology, a company could keep an actor’s work and later rework and reuse it without paying them.

Yuri Lowenthal, who voices Peter Parker’s Spider-Man in the Marvel games explains: “Underestimating the actor’s contribution can lead to exploitation, and could be avoided by starting a conversation with actors so we can make it work for everyone. 

“As of now, I don’t think anyone from these AI companies has reached out to us as a whole, to see if we can agree on what might be fair use and fair compensation for the use of our voices, our performances.

“I’ve started to catch very vague clauses in actors’ contracts that allow companies to use our performances for whatever they want in perpetuity, and maybe already have done so in order to develop this technology. 

“This is a scary precedent that has already been set, and I want to start a conversation with AI companies about how we could protect actors, and again, the ecosystem of storytelling.”

Aside from the financial issues of the new technology, there is also the issue of actors’ voices and likenesses being used in projects they are morally opposed to.

Cissy Jones explains: “Too many companies are asking actors to sign horrible contracts with zero input on the final product for an often-crappy one-time buyout.

“I definitely understand how tech like this can be intriguing for indie games, but if we have no guardrails as actors; our voices could end up being used for offensive materials or inappropriate casting.”

One day the AI could be useful for actors in the same way that automatic captions are useful for those watching YouTube.

Having an AI give a variation of performances could help an actor choose which one suits the tone they are going for.

However, if these companies and unions do not sit down and talk about what is right and fair for both parties, we risk pushing the talent that drives stories out of the industry.

SAG-AFTRA gave a closing comment on the discussion. 

A spokesperson for the union says: “As technology continues to change the entertainment and media landscape, we will continue to create contracts that are fair and protective for performers and responsive to the needs of the companies that wish to employ them. 

“We are also adding or negotiating language into our existing contracts that provides critical protection from misuse or unauthorised use of member’s voice or image through technology. 

“Protection of a performer’s digital self is a critical issue for SAG-AFTRA and our members.  

“These new technologies offer exciting new opportunities but can also pose potential threats to performers’ livelihoods. 

“It is crucial that performers control exploitation of their digital self, be properly compensated for its use, and be able to provide informed consent. “

We may not be able to hold back the tide on the incoming wave of AI technology, but perhaps there is a way we can negotiate with it.

Written by Georgina Young on behalf of GLHF.