Thursday, June 13

Scarlett Johansson Said No, but OpenAI’s Virtual Assistant Sounds Just Like Her

Days before OpenAI demonstrated its new, flirty voice assistant last week, the actress Scarlett Johansson said, Sam Altman, the company’s chief executive, called her agent and asked that she consider licensing her voice for a virtual assistant.

It was his second request to the actress in the past year, Ms. Johansson said in a statement on Monday, adding that the reply both times was no.

Despite those refusals, Ms. Johansson said, OpenAI used a voice that sounded “eerily similar to mine.” She has hired a lawyer and asked OpenAI to stop using a voice it called “Sky.”

OpenAI suspended its release of “Sky” over the weekend. The company said in a blog post on Sunday that “AI voices should not deliberately mimic a celebrity’s distinctive voice — Sky’s voice is not an imitation of Scarlett Johansson but belongs to a different professional actress using her own natural speaking voice.”

For Ms. Johansson, the episode has been a surreal case of life-imitating art. In 2013, she provided the voice for an A.I. system in the Spike Jonze movie “Her.” The film told the story of a lonely introvert seduced by a virtual assistant named Samantha, a tragic commentary on the potential pitfalls of technology as it becomes more realistic.

Last week, Mr. Altman appeared to nod to the similarity between OpenAI’s virtual assistant and the film in a post on X with the single word “her.”

OpenAI said it couldn’t share the names of its voice professionals for privacy reasons. It said it had worked with unidentified directors and producers to develop five voices for its product: Breeze, Cove, Ember, Juniper and Sky. The voices were recorded last summer in San Francisco.

OpenAI is at an important juncture as it prepares to make its voice assistants available to customers with support from its latest technology, known as GPT-4o. On Monday night, Mr. Altman said in a statement that “the voice of Sky is not Scarlett Johansson’s, and it was never intended to resemble hers.”

“We cast the voice actor behind Sky’s voice before any outreach to Ms. Johansson,” he continued. “Out of respect for Ms. Johansson, we have paused using Sky’s voice in our products. We are sorry to Ms. Johansson that we didn’t communicate better.”

Ms. Johansson’s statement was reported earlier by NPR’s Bobby Allyn.

She is the latest high-profile person to accuse OpenAI of using creative work without permission. Over the past year, OpenAI has been sued for copyright violations by authors, actors and newspapers, including the Authors Guild of America and The New York Times, which sued OpenAI and its partner, Microsoft.

It is the second time in recent years that Ms. Johansson has taken a public stand against a prominent company. In 2021, she sued the Walt Disney Company, accusing it of breaching her contract because it released the film “Black Widow” simultaneously in theaters and on Disney+. Ms. Johansson, who has played the Marvel character Black Widow in eight blockbuster films, reached a settlement with the company.

Before becoming a Marvel superhero, Ms. Johansson made a name for herself in the 2003 film “Lost in Translation” as a young woman who formed an unlikely bond in Tokyo with a movie star played by Bill Murray. She has consistently bounced between more artful fare from directors such as Wes Anderson and Hollywood blockbusters like “The Avengers.” In 2020, she was nominated for two Academy Awards for “Marriage Story” and “Jojo Rabbit.”

In September, Ms. Johansson said, Mr. Altman first reached out to her about providing her voice for OpenAI’s future assistant.

“He told me that he felt that by my voicing the system, I could bridge the gap between tech companies and creatives and help consumers to feel comfortable with the seismic shift concerning humans and A.I,” she said in her statement. “He said he felt that my voice would be comforting to people.”

Last week, OpenAI unveiled that assistant during a polished product event in San Francisco. Mark Chen, a company research lead, told the assistant that he was nervous to be doing a live demo. With the peppiness of a cheerleader, the assistant said: “Oh, you’re doing a live demo right now? That’s awesome!”

Mr. Chen then went through a lengthy demonstration, showing how OpenAI had combined the conversational skills of its ChatGPT chatbot with the sound of a voice assistant like the iPhone’s Siri. OpenAI’s assistant could simultaneously juggle audio, images and video so it could answer a written math question and respond to questions.

Afterward, Mr. Altman wrote about the event on his personal blog, saying: “It feels like A.I. from the movies; and it’s still a bit surprising to me that it’s real.”

Ms. Johansson said she had heard from friends, family and the public that the voice speaking to Mr. Chen sounded just like hers. Alissa Wilkinson, a movie critic for The Times, wrote that the assistant’s voice betrayed “a bit of Johansson’s clear, low tone and a hint of vocal fry.”

In an interview after the event, Mira Murati, OpenAI’s chief technology officer, told The Verge that the similarities to Ms. Johansson’s voice were incidental, and that the voice wasn’t designed to sound like the actress.