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Scarlett Johansson says OpenAI used her likeness without permission for its ‘Sky’ voice assistant

Actor Scarlett Johansson has accused OpenAI of copying her voice for one of the voice assisstants in ChatGPT despite denying the company permission to do so. Johansson’s statement on Monday came hours after OpenAI said that the company would no longer use the voice in ChatGPT but did not provide a reason why.

“Last September, I received an offer from Sam Altman, who wanted to hire me to voice the current ChatGPT 4.0 system,” Johansson wrote in the statement that was first shared with NPR. “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 AI. He said he felt that my voice would be comforting to people.” Johansson added that she declined the offer after “much consideration and for personal reasons,” but when OpenAI demoed GPT-4o, the company’s latest large language model last week, “my friends, family, and the general public all noted how much the newest system named ’Sky’ sounded like me.”

When Johansson saw OpenAI’s newest demo, she said she was “shocked, angered and in disbelief that Mr. Altman would pursue a voice that sounded so eerily similar to mind that my closest friends and news outlets could not tell the difference.” She also revealed that Altman had contacted her agent just two days before the company revealed GPT-4o and asked her to reconsider, but released the system anyway before she had a chance to respond.

“The voice of Sky is not Scarlett Johansson’s, and it was never intended to resemble hers,” an OpenAI spokesperson said in a statement sent to Engadget that the company attributed to Altman, OpenAI’s co-founder and CEO. “We cast the voice actor behind Sky’s voice before any outreach to Ms. Johansson. 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.”

Even though “Sky” has been one of the voice assisstants in ChatGPT since September 2023, GPT-4o, which the company announced last week, takes things a step further. The company said that the new model is closer to “much more natural human-computer interaction” and demoed its executives having nearly human-like conversations with the voice assistant in ChatGPT. This invited comparisons to Samantha, the virtual voice assistant played by Johansson in the 2013 movie Her who has an intimate relationship with a human being. Shortly after the event, Altman tweeted a single word — “her” — in an apparent reference to the film.

On Monday, OpenAI said that it was pausing the use of “Sky” in ChatGPT and released a lengthy post revealing how the company hired professional voice actors to create its own virtual assistants, and denying any similarities with Johansson’s voice.

“We believe 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,” OpenAI wrote and added that each of its performers, who it declined to name for privacy reasons, was paid “above top-of-market rates, and this will continue for as long as their voices are used in our products.”

This move, Johansson said in her statement, only came after she hired legal counsel who wrote two letters to Altman and OpenAI asking for an explanation. “In a time when we are all grappling with deepfakes and the protection of our own likeness, our own work, our own identities, I believe these are questions that deserve absolute clarity,” Johansson wrote. “I look forward to resolution in the form of transparency and the passage of appropriate legislation to help ensure that individual rights are protected.”

Update, May 20 2024, 9:09 PM ET: This story has been updated to include a statement from OpenAI.

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