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Use of AI to copy Anthony Bourdain's voice for documentary sparks criticism

"I think this is pretty grotesque."

A documentary on the late Anthony Bourdain is drawing attention for its use of artificial intelligence.
Focus Features

A New Yorker review of Roadrunner, the new documentary on Anthony Bourdain, is getting extra attention for one anecdote mentioned toward the end. In the article, published Thursday, reporter Helen Rosner describes a scene in the film in which artist David Choe, a friend of Bourdain's, reads an e-mail from the late chef and travel documentarian, who died by suicide in 2018

The scene starts with Choe's voice before transitioning to Bourdain's, which says, "and my life is sort of shit now. You are successful, and I am successful, and I'm wondering: Are you happy?" Rosner says she asked filmmaker Morgan Neville how he'd found a recording of Bourdain reading the email. Neville reportedly told her, "There were three quotes there I wanted his voice for that there were no recordings of." So Neville gave a software company around 12 hours of recordings and "created an AI model of his voice."

That revelation has some people feeling uneasy about the ethics behind the decision. Washington Post reporter Dave Weigel tweeted a screenshot of the passage, writing, "thanks I hate it."

"It can be awkward when docs get an actor to 'perform' somebody's quotes -- the Hunter S. Thompson doc had Johnny Depp read his columns, for example. But this? This sucks!" he added.

"I think this is pretty grotesque," someone else tweeted

Focus Features, which created the film, didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

Emerging technologies have enabled us to more easily warp reality through synthetic media like deepfakes, which are videos that appear to show people doing or saying things they never did. Use of this technology ranges from creating harmless celebrity look-alike videos on TikTok to potentially disrupting elections or violating people's privacy. Some people have expressed concern about the implications of these kinds of rapidly evolving technologies, and the Bourdain revelation has some wondering whether the late chef would be OK with this use of AI.

In the New Yorker article, Neville tells Rosner, "If you watch the film, other than that line you mentioned, you probably don't know what the other lines are that were spoken by the AI, and you're not going to know." He added, "We can have a documentary-ethics panel about it later."

Writer Isaac Butler tweeted, "This feels unethical to me maybe?"

Documentary filmmaker Lindsay Beyerstein, who isn't affiliated with Roadrunner, wrote, "Did they disclose to the viewers that, while most of the lines in Bourdain's voice comes from real footage, a few were simulated by AI with the words taken from texts he wrote? There's no real problem with using AI in the place of a soundalike actor in a non-fiction film, as long as the creators are up front about what they're doing."

In an article published Tuesday by GQ, Neville told the publication, "I checked, you know, with his widow and his literary executor, just to make sure people were cool with that. And they were like, Tony would have been cool with that. I wasn't putting words into his mouth. I was just trying to make them come alive." 

On Friday, Ottavia Bourdain, the chef's widow, pushed back on the comment, saying in a tweet: "I certainly was NOT the one who said Tony would have been cool with that." 

Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain opens in theaters Friday.