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He’s Been Dead for Nearly 10 Years. Now He’s Narrating Your Audiobook.

OMG, some computer has been going online and pretending to be me. That vicious bastard! Hey, wait a minute, I bet it's a "she".

He’s Been Dead for Nearly 10 Years. Now He’s Narrating Your Audiobook.

Apple, Google and others embrace the new AI technology for recording audio versions of books

By Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg, WSJ

Updated April 6, 2023 11:02 am ET

Edward Herrmann, a prolific actor who narrated dozens of audiobooks, has been dead for almost a decade. But that hasn’t prevented him from being the voice of several recent audiobooks.

Mr. Herrmann’s latest work is generated by DeepZen Ltd., a London-based artificial-intelligence startup that was given access to the actor’s past recordings with his family’s permission. From that trove, DeepZen said it is able to generate any sound and intonation that Mr. Herrmann would have used if he were narrating these new books himself.

“We felt it was an amazing way to carry on his legacy,” said Rory Herrmann, a Los Angeles restaurateur and Mr. Herrmann’s son. He said he was astonished when he first listened to an audiobook featuring his father’s synthetic voice.

“It’s a wow moment,” he said.

Generative AI technology, a type of artificial intelligence that can create various types of content including text, images and audio, has become a buzzword since OpenAI’s ChatGPT was launched late last year. The chatbot—which can eloquently answer seemingly any question, but is sometimes spectacularly wrong—became an overnight global phenomenon, fueling speculation that AI could fundamentally reshape many professions.

AI’s reach into audiobook narration isn’t merely theoretical. Thousands of AI-narrated audiobooks are available on popular marketplaces including Alphabet Inc.’s Google Play Books and Apple Inc.’s Apple Books. Inc., AMZN 0.95%increase; green up pointing triangle whose Audible unit is the largest U.S. audiobook service, doesn’t offer any for now, but says it is evaluating its position.

The technology hasn’t been widely embraced by the largest U.S. book publishers, which mostly use it for marketing efforts and some foreign-language titles. But it is a boon for smaller outfits and little-known authors, whose books might not have the sales potential to warrant the cost—traditionally at least $5,000—of recording an audio version.

Apple and Google said they allow users to create audiobooks free of charge that use digitally replicated human voices. The voices featured in audiobooks generated by Apple and Google come from real people, whose voices helped train their automated-narration engines.

Charles Watkinson, director of the University of Michigan Press, said the publisher has made about 100 audiobooks using Google’s free auto-narrated audiobook platform since early last year. The new technology made those titles possible because it eliminated the costs associated with using a production studio, support staff and human narrators.

“From what I can see, human narrators are freaking out,” said Dima Abramov, chief executive of Speechki, an Austin, Texas-based audiobook producer that uses synthetically narrated voices.

Scott Brick, who has narrated more than 1,000 audiobooks by such authors as Tom Clancy and Nelson DeMille, said AI auto-narration is best suited for nonfiction titles, where narrators and readers aren’t as emotionally invested as with works of fiction.

“There’s realism there, but no soul,” Mr. Brick said.

DeepZen has worked with more than 30 professional actors to help its AI engine capture all the ranges of human emotion, said Taylan Kamis, its CEO and co-founder.

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