With a Jordan Peele voice-altering teaser, Adobe MAX introduced Adobe VoCo last fall. Could this experimental ‘Photoshop for audio’ lead to a less trustworthy world?
Digital media editing has become so sophisticated that photographs are now questionable forms of evidence. The phrase “it’s just Photoshopped” makes every physical depiction of a real event questionable. Now it’s someone’s words that can’t be trusted. Introducing Adobe VoCo, an experimental voice manipulation feature that can alter a speaker’s words in the sound of their very own voice.
In an Adobe MAX 2016 Sneak Peek event, comedian Jordan Peele jokingly calls VoCo developer Zeyu Jin a witch for creating an incriminating soundbite of him saying who he kissed after winning a prestigious award. While the software does sound like a fun way to create prank calls, it doesn’t go without serious implications.
To clarify, with a mere 20 minutes of audio of one person’s voice, whole dictionaries of words are created. Audio files are matched with typed text and converted to read the text in the voice of the recorded audio. If released to the public, Adobe VoCo would be one of the most sophisticated audio transcription tools out there, with limitless possibilities of words to be morphed.
The Intended Use
Adobe suggests that the positive and useful side of this feature allows film and television segments with unplanned profanity to be edited out more seamlessly. Podcasts can be doctored to fit in missing guest speakers or correct blips in files, and movies can be translated into other languages without the mismatching mouth movements.
Tone and pitch can be adjusted. When a person’s voice is put into the program, it becomes as moldable as clay, similar to the way music recordings are mixed to achieve a certain sound. Algorithms found in Adobe VoCo take out a lot of the need for human intervention, saving the entertainment industry a lot of time and money.
Like any other technology that puts real human expression through computer alteration, there are questionable results.
Adobe VoCo creators have scraped the surface of creating identifying watermarks to secure voices from being tampered with, but the details on accomplishing this feat are currently vague.
It’s all too easy to imagine a future in which voice manipulation is an entire genre of entertainment. Impersonations are already a revered art form. It’s a skill that voice actors spend years perfecting. With software that takes 20 minutes to embody a person’s entire vocabulary and dialect, there’s no telling what the power to change someone’s voice could do.
Perhaps this program will be the impetus for getting people off the internet and technology, forcing them to interact face-to-face to experience honest communication where there’s no confusion over what is real.
A continuation of a surreal 1984-like reality? It sure seems like sci-fi is the new truth.
Beyond the Sneak Peek
It’s important to remember that the tech reveal at Adobe MAX 2016 was just a peek into a possible technology. It may never make it into the hands of the average consumer (which is possibly scarier). The Adobe VoCo program is the brainchild of Adobe Research and Princeton University. They have big reputations to live up to and ask that people not be so quick to judge.
Adobe VP of Creativity Mark Randall describes the project as part of controversy in innovation and explains that this development is simply part of a technology continuum: one that has always been “an extension of human ability and intent.” In short, he explains that there are two sides to every coin, that with the negative sides of this technology, there can also be good.
He references how print media has been a source for just as much education as upheaval. VoCo, he explains, does not change what has already been possible for people to do with audio; it just makes it more accessible.
Randall suggests that the ability to manipulate audio actually creates a positive form of questioning, one that forces people to ask (and demand) what is true.
“We will be wrestling with the consequence of computers as creative partners, or how integrated and intrusive we want augmented reality to be in our daily lives in the near future. Each advancement will come with amazing benefits, as well as the possibility of negative consequences,” Randall writes.