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  • Writer's pictureChris Butera

VO and AI? A Voice Actor’s Thoughts on Artificial Intelligence

A robot inside a cozy house staring up at something.

It’s already June. Half of 2023 is over, and artificial intelligence is still the hottest topic of the year. Or maybe it’s the deadest horse you ever saw, fated to be beaten for eternity.

AI affects everyone in some way, and people are understandably freaking out. We are now living in the latest industrial revolution, and just like your grandparents who built Henry Ford’s cars by hand were up in arms about machines making the trucks, modern society is worried about what’s next for its people.

So naturally, people that know that I’m a voice actor ask me about AI, too. Here are some of the questions I get:

“What do you think about AI?”

“Have you lost voiceover jobs to AI?”

“Do you think AI is going to replace voiceover work?”

“How do you think AI will affect the voiceover industry?”

Here’s my two cents on all this and then some.

How is AI Affecting Voiceover?

Like every industry, AI is affecting voiceover in a few ways, and a lot of it’s scary.

Voice actors have heard themselves on projects they did not do thanks to voice-cloning AI software, which companies with nefarious practices have and continue to use to steal someone’s instrument. Others did not read the fine print of their client’s contracts and unwittingly allowed this to happen. And, of course, companies have begun experimenting with AI tools such as ChatGPT to use AI voices for their projects. Heck, even Apple tried to pull a fast one with AI-generated voiceover for its audiobooks.

This has absolutely rattled the voiceover industry, possibly more than the WGA writers who are currently striking over the issue as well as others. Actors union SAG-AFTRA may also join the picket lines in the coming weeks for the very same reason. Several of my card-carrying voiceover colleagues are likely preparing their signs at the time of this writing.

On the flip side, voice actors have been arming themselves with knowledge about AI for years. The topic has been one of contention since I started in 2017, with regular discussions popping up in the community and conferences since at least 2021 (at least that I’ve noticed). And voiceover organizations like the National Association of Voice Actors (NAVA) have put together plenty of educational resources for voice actors regarding the topic.

The shock for us wasn’t necessarily that AI was coming, or even that it was here (text-to-speech has been a thing for a while, and Siri, Cortana and Alexa have been fighting over your house’s playlist for quite some time).

What really got voice actors was not only an increase in horror stories brought on by voice cloning technology, but that the rest of the world was seemingly OK with synthetic voices while it balked at AI elsewhere.

That was January. By March we realized that’s not necessarily the case. It actually turns out that real people like – and prefer – listening to other real people after all. They not only can still tell the difference between a voice actor and a bot, they even react better to real voices. Plus, the tech is not all there. It can’t do inflections well, or mimic human spontaneity. At least not yet.

We’ve even seen some voice actors willingly participate in AI training programs. There are even AI companies that work with voice actors to train their AI software to replicate their own voices. These AI voice doubles are then licensed to companies interested in using AI voices for their projects. When the synthetic voice is used, the voice actor gets paid without having to ever go into the booth. Crazy, but not a bad middle ground.

How do I Feel About AI as a Voice Actor?

J. Michael Collins called it in 2021 when he went on Marc Scott’s Everyday VOpreneur podcast, AI is not coming for our jobs. At least not all of them (low-paying jobs and the bottom end of the business will get routed out by AI in the coming years).

And I have to agree. In fact, I’ve seen this.

In recent months I have received some responses from new leads telling me that they use AI voices for some of their projects. However, these same companies mentioned in the same email that they use real voices for projects of higher importance.

TLDR: Companies are willing to hire a real voice actor when it counts because even they know that nothing beats the real thing. At least not yet.

And those jobs I possibly lost to a robot? They likely would have been at a low rate that neither I nor any other professional voice talent would have done them for anyway.

Even the companies knew this.

They didn’t want to waste anyone’s time or go to Fiverr for a cheaper and likely untrained talent that would have been worse than a bot, so they went with one.

And that’s fine by me.

Where do I Think VO and AI are Going?

Right now we’re in the wild, wild west, with VO and AI meeting at high noon for a showdown. It’s going to get wacky for a while, but eventually, I think the voiceover industry – and pretty much every other one – is going to be just fine.

As I said earlier, the WGA is fighting the good fight to keep robots out of the writer’s room, and SAG-AFTRA might strike with them to keep AI out of acting. The ripple effects based on the outcome will no doubt inspire other strikes and forms of protest in other sectors. New laws are being worked on and will continue to be drawn up to ensure AI does not replace humans in the workforce (although some companies might be better off with Siri in the C-suite and Cortana in middle management).

Like every other industrial revolution before this one, new and better jobs will be created. These will fully immerse human and AI collaboration. We’re already seeing the start of this as smarter companies embrace AI rather than break out the torches and pitchforks. I use it for generic tasks at my 9-to-5 so that I can free up time for the more important ones (they even encourage it). I also use it in my voiceover business to help me come up with email subject lines, email content, and even content briefs and outlines for blog posts.

In fact, this very article was outlined by ChatGPT (Don’t panic. Me, a real-live human, wrote it).

I even have an AI policy on my website, given to me by one of my voiceover colleagues/friends/mentors Paul Schmidt. I’m taking the steps to protect my voice from being cloned and misused, and if you’re a voice talent yourself, you should too. NAVA’s educational AI materials are a great starting point. For folks interested in working with me, or curious to see what a voiceover AI policy might look like, I encourage you to check it out.

As for the voiceover industry, I think AI voice training gigs will heat up, and we’ll probably see an increase in voice artists using AI voice licensing platforms to generate passive income as it becomes more commonplace.

We will also, unfortunately, see more issues and lawsuits concerning the more dastardly voice cloning technology and companies trying unethical policies with talent that either didn’t read the fine print and/or didn’t fully understand the terms of their contracts. That might trigger new laws and regulations to crack down on businesses doing this, which would be really great.

Most, if not all low-paying voiceover jobs will disappear in the next 3-5 years, and we might even see some genres such as IVR and eLearning take a massive hit, if not disappear completely. Perhaps pro rate guides such as the GVAA and Gravy for the Brain will either suggest higher rates for voice actors to quote and/or build out rates for AI usage to offset this. We may even wind up with several new AI-driven voiceover genres beyond our wildest dreams.

Moving to untrained and new voice actors starting out, Fiverr and other race-to-the-bottom work will dry up, and the voiceover industry as a whole will see a significantly higher turnover than it already does. Pay-to-play sites such as Bodalgo and Voice 123 will see more signups from amateur talent trying to break into the business than they ever have because AI will take all the “beer money” jobs, and new talent looking to launch their careers might have a tougher time starting out than ever.

Unless they educate themselves, get the proper training and most importantly, have the right mindset to see it through. Because as my buddy/jedi master Wolf Williams once told me, “This is a long chess game.”

Want to get a real, live human to voice your project? Fill out my project contact form or shoot me an email today!


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