AI is already taking jobs from some voice actors
Jun 1, 2023

AI is already taking jobs from some voice actors

Artists like Remie Michelle Clarke rely on small jobs. The AI boom is making it easier for companies to outsource that work to machines.

Powerful new artificial intelligence tools have a lot of people worried about being replaced. Remie Michelle Clarke, a voiceover artist in Dublin, Ireland, says she’s already seeing it.

A few years ago, Michelle Clarke did some voiceover work for Microsoft, recording thousands of sentences for its text-to-speech software. Since then, her voice has been licensed to third-party companies, including one called Revoicer, an AI company selling text-to-speech voices. 

Michelle Clarke only realized her voice had been distributed when she came across Revoicer’s website and heard a sample of the company’s voice called Olivia. The Olivia voice speaks in a gentle, hushed tone and has a soft Irish accent, just like hers.

Marketplace’s Meghan McCarty Carino spoke with Michelle Clarke about the growing threat this technology poses to her business and the experience of hearing her own voice doing gigs she didn’t book.

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Remie Michelle Clarke: A voiceover artist basically puts voice to anything that you can think of. You might hear a voiceover artist selling you something on Spotify or you could be learning from a voiceover artist when you’re learning modules about medicine. You might be watching documentaries and hearing a voiceover talk to you about thresher sharks. There’s no limit to what a voiceover artist can do.

Remie Michelle Clarke (Courtesy Michelle Clarke)

Hearing the voice called Olivia from Revoicer is uncanny. It’s a surreal thing to listen to it because I know that’s me as soon as I hear it. I visualize the hours I spent in my studio, and I can hear those hours of work in that. And now here’s this company called Revoicer, who I’ve never heard of, profiting off hours of my work while I’ve been completely left out of that equation.

Meghan McCarty Carino: The Olivia voice does sound like you, but it also sounds pretty obviously fake. Do you think that this voice could really compete with you?

Michelle Clarke: I don’t feel it can compete with me as a voiceover artist. However, there are so many different tiers of work within the voiceover industry. Some of those are much smaller, internalized jobs for corporations or social media ads. A lot of voiceover artists would probably call those smaller jobs their bread and butter. These jobs are often created by smaller companies or smaller brands, and sometimes they don’t want to pay the voiceover premium.

I have actually come across quite a number of these ads. I’ve even found a couple of tech products that use my voice. These are people who have opted for AI over maybe looking for the real voiceover artist behind it.

So, while I don’t think the AI is competing with me as a voiceover artist, I have seen how it is affecting my business in that kind of tier of work. It’s definitely affecting my business in that way.

McCarty Carino: Do you think this technology will have a lasting impact on your industry and your career?  

Michelle Clarke: With the way it’s progressing at the moment, yes. I think if changes happen, maybe some of the damage can be mitigated. But currently, I do see a change in the industry. I see that shift and other voiceover artists have seen it as well. Right now, for me, the prospect isn’t great. I am already looking at other things to do, thinking of moving in different directions. I’m trying to embrace that dreaded word, the “pivot,” because I feel like it’s necessary now. I see trouble ahead.

We talk about the legal system as a slow-moving beast, but AI is a rapidly moving entity, and we’re just going to have to be faster, we’re just going to have to catch up to all the developments that are happening. There are real human consequences to this version of progress that we’re seeing.

McCarty Carino: We talk a lot on the show about how technology like this could affect people’s livelihoods, and there’s always this rejoinder among tech optimists that it will create more jobs than it destroys. How does that ring to you from where you’re sitting?

Michelle Clarke: Yes, maybe there will be new jobs, but they’ll be jobs in one area, and that will be the area of tech. Not everybody wants to work in tech, and not everybody has the skills to work in tech. Why should tech be the only industry in the future? We shouldn’t have to lose so much just to gain some progress.

McCarty Carino: Philosophically, what does it mean for technology to take over this kind of job, which is more than just a job for you, right?

Michelle Clarke: Humans create art, that creates values, that builds societies, that creates culture, that references how we live, and that influences the culture that we shape and that we build. If AI, which is based on all of human creation of the past, takes over, then everything that will be created will be of the past.

For me, art is something that is very intangible, because it has an element of spirit, because it has that heart element, that kind of emotional element. Two people could grow up side by side on the same street and both could become writers and they could write completely different types of work because of their unique identity, expression, soul, self. An AI product just can’t create in that way. It can’t draw on all of these personal experiences, like a how the sun landed on a flower at 7 am on a Tuesday. These are the things that are being lost.

There’s a strange surrealism that’s coming with AI production. It’s that emotionless vision of the future that worries me. Because if art creates and shapes society, and all of human-created art is taken over by AI, then a future society is possibly one without soul, without magic, without the inspiration of that aha moment, that epiphany. Without an emotional connection, what sort of future are we walking into?

Remie Michelle Clarke is certainly not the only voiceover artist running into AI doppelgangers online.

In 2021, a Canadian voice actor named Bev Standing sued TikTok, saying the social media platform used her voice without her permission for its viral text-to-speech feature. If you were on the app then, you probably heard Standing’s voice narrating the inner thoughts of a dog or something similar. The voice on TikTok was simultaneously monotone yet peppy and often mispronounced words in comical ways.

Later in 2021, TikTok agreed to settle the suit with Standing, though the details of the settlement were not made public.

Since then, TikTok has replaced the old voice with an even peppier voice named Jessie, and the new artist behind the voice, Kat Callaghan, seems to be in on the job. At least, that’s according to a video she posted on TikTok, of course.

We asked Microsoft about Michelle Clarke’s experience finding out her voice had been licensed to third-party companies after completing voiceover work for it. A spokesperson for Microsoft sent this response:

“As part of our commitment to using AI responsibly, we inform voice talent about the use of their audio recordings to create synthetic voices and we obtain their legal consent for this use. We also set standards and provide resources to help our customers use these technologies responsibly in their applications.”

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