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Scarlett Johansson Is "Shocked" OpenAI Might Use Her Voice for "Sky." OpenAI Pulls It Down But Users Create a Petition to Bring It Back

Photo by Mariia Shalabaieva / Unsplash

"Last September, I received an offer from Sam Altman, who wanted to hire me to voice the current ChatGPT 4.0 system. [...] He said that my voice could be comforting to people. [...] After much consideration and for personal reasons, I declined the offer." This is how Scarlett Johansson's statement reads (shared by her publicist with NPR). Nine months after this offer, a voice that is so uncannily resembles the one of Ms. Johansson in the movie "Her" anyway appears to dub OpenAI's "Sky," an AI voice assistant that can be transformed from the new GPT-4o and interpret facial expressions, detect emotion and even sing on command.

Funnily enough, the movie that so many users believe to be the data source for voice cloning tells a story of a man who falls in love with the female voice of his computer's operating system. But it stops being surprising and becomes only slightly creepy once we find out that Sam Altman said that the 2013 Spike Jonze film was his favourite movie. Altman's tweet from May 13 that mysteriously says just "her" allows even more room for assumptions that Johansson's voice might indeed be used as training data.

According to the statement, just two days before the new ChatGPT was launched, Sam Altman again reached out to Johansson's team, asking the actress "to reconsider."

So all this timeline looks suspiciously like this:

— OpenAI reaches out to Scarlett last fall with this exciting offer.

→ She refuses.

Two days before the GPT-4o launch, they contact her agent again and ask her to "reconsider."

→ No response. OpenAI shows off the product anyway with Altman tweeting the puzzling "her" allegedly referencing the movie.

→ Users and later Scarlett herself notice that the voice sounds remarkably like her. Lawyers demand that OpenAI discloses how the voice used for Sky was created. The legal team of the actress has sent OpenAI two letters demanding that the company discloses the process they leveraged to develop a voice to dub "Sky."

→ OpenAI pulls down the voice and claims they hired an actress with a similar voice whose identity they cannot disclose.  

"Nine months later, my friends, family and the general public all noted how much the newest system named ‘Sky’ sounded like me," shares Johansson in her statement. "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. Mr. Altman even insinuated that the similarity was intentional, tweeting a single word ‘her’ — a reference to the film in which I voiced a chat system, Samantha, who forms an intimate relationship with a human."

OpenAI, undoubtedly, denied any connection between Johansson and "Sky". Then the company suddenly paused the voice. In a post on X, OpenAI said the voice would be pulled down because of the "questions about how we chose the voices in ChatGPT," without providing any further details. OpenAI CTO Mira Murati told NPR in an interview that the company "didn't pattern any ChatGPT voices on Johansson's sultry computer voice in the movie."

"It says more about our imagination, our storytelling as a society than about the technology itself," Murati told NPR. "The way we developed this technology is not based on the movie or a sci-fi story. We're trying to build these machines that can think and have robust understandings of the world."

In a blog post on Sunday, OpenAI revealed that the AI voice was created using the voice of an actress whose identity will remain confidential to protect her privacy.

"Sky’s voice is not an imitation of Scarlett Johansson but belongs to a different professional actress using her own natural speaking voice. To protect their privacy, we cannot share the names of our voice talents," that blog post says.

"We worked with industry-leading casting and directing professionals to narrow down over 400 submissions before selecting the 5 voices," the post says. "Each of the voices—Breeze, Cove, Ember, Juniper and Sky—are sampled from voice actors we partnered with to create them. We support the creative community and worked closely with the voice acting industry to ensure we took the right steps to cast ChatGPT’s voices. Each actor receives compensation above top-of-market rates, and this will continue for as long as their voices are used in our products."

The new voice assistant will be publicly available in the coming weeks, so it makes users wonder if all that was a PR stunt to generate some buzz about the voice assistant and make people engage with it.

The 'Sky' voice sounded like my aunt: Users' petition to bring the voice back

The response of lawyers, Scarlett Johansson herself, and the creative community was quite understandable: All were outraged and demanded answers on the training data. As usual. But what we found especially amusing and somewhat confusing is that some users demand that OpenAI brings the original "Sky" voice back, no matter who it belongs to.

On May 20, a r/ChatGPT subreddit user posted a petition that is currently signed by 356 people out of 500.

"I think we need to have a form of protest in order for the voice Sky to return to ChatGPT," the petition author claims. "I don't think it's fair to get removed. All other voices just sound very bad compared to Sky and aren't as good. It's very unfair that a few scared people on twitter managed to get rid of the best Ai voice I have ever heard. We hope that they will bring it back."

Among the reasons to sign, Redditors say that "Sky is far and away the most enjoyable voice to interact with" and "the new Sky has a very annoying voice. It’s awful."

Some even compare the voice with their aunt; so, perhaps, it's not Johansson, after all?