Remember how fast things changed when the pandemic hit? When we were, for the most part, taken completely by surprise and life as we knew it was no more? The same thing is happening with AI.
Artificial Intelligence is everywhere it seems. It’s always in the news and people have been using it to streamline work and to come up with ideas for awhile now. This is the Wild West of technology and it’s slipping its way into all of our lives (and if it hasn’t for you yet, just wait!).
Everything is happening so quickly that it’s a struggle not to fall behind. There’s so much to learn every day and I personally feel like I’m barely treading water trying to keep abreast of these changes. I don’t want to be like my mother, who knew how to program back in the 80s but stopped paying attention right around the start of more user-friendly operating systems in the early 90s. This put her firmly in the computational stone age and I was doomed to years of not so patiently explaining how to use basic hotkeys. Despite being in the first generation to inherently understand computers, I feel like I hardly recognize this crucial and once so familiar tech.
In the VO industry, many people are panicking over AI. Or at the very least sense a looming dread as they worry for the future. Companies have already been using AI to create audio recordings of articles that sound very human-like (until the inevitable hiccup that jolts the listener straight into the uncanny valley) and this will put a lot of voice actors out of work. Not the ones at the top, mind you, but the ones in the mid to lower levels, which is most of us. Jobs in eLearning, corporate narration, and other non-broadcast voiceover doesn’t need a great deal of emotion or dynamism. In other words, it doesn’t need actors. It needs narrators. And a computer can do this just as well as a person. It’s cheaper to use AI than to hire an actor to record something straightforward. And AI makes fewer mistakes. It can process a wall of text in just a few minutes. It is, unfortunately for artists, good business practices for the company to use a program that does the job as fast and as cheaply as possible.
Quantity over quality and all that.
Worryingly, some companies are hiring actors at stupendously low rates--and some actors are willing to trade their voice for a little bit of cash so their voice is used in an AI trainer or as an AI voice. A lot of newer actors see these offers of a few hundred or thousand dollars and jump at the “opportunity”, not realizing that in the long run they’ve sold off their future in VO for next to nothing. Because once the company has your voice, why the hell would they pay you again? They already own you.
Some companies have gone the nefarious route of posting “auditions” that are used to harvest voices without the actor’s consent. This is illegal, but good luck protecting yourself when you don’t know where your intellectual property has gone in the world wid e web and the guy stealing your voice is in another continent. Some big companies have supposedly been harvesting audiobook narrator's voices too, claiming the authors gave them permission even though the actors who did the recordings didn't.
The world is changing, whether we like it or not! This is all the more reason to be savvy and know how to protect yourself! Here are some steps you can take:
I think, most importantly, don’t panic! Automation and the desire to streamline has been around forever. Socrates said writing things down would be the end of good memory, yet we remember just fine. TV came along to ruin the radio, yet we still listen to terrestrial, satellite, and internet! Virtual reality has come along to replace actual reality, yet we still seek to be present through meditation and forest bathing. Art will not disappear because of AI--instead there will be more of it and we will be overcome with choices like we already are with streaming services. The trick, I think, is to be flexible. To keep your eyes, your ears--and your options--open.
But where does that leave the artists?
AI can mimic humans very well (this blog, for example, is being recited by a clone I made of my own voice), but there is a narrowness to the performance. AI can’t make dramatic leaps and choices, it can only say what is put in front of it. Plainly, with limited range and no spontaneity. And always a little bit of monotone.
Considering that humans still seek out art at all, after the tens of thousands of years we’ve been making it, I imagine this will lead to a range of buyers: ones who just want the jobs done quickly and cheaply and ones who seek the humanity of a well-made, artisanal product. Like how there are bargain shoppers and luxury shoppers. There will be more of the former and less of the latter--something that we already see in this industry--so if we want to survive we need to keep moving, polishing, and crafting. We give buyers ideas by being our creative selves and we are the ones who connect to the people at the end of the line whom our art is made for. Because, remember, it’s not AI buying or consuming the end product--it’s people.
I don’t know how people who code for a living keep their sanity in check.
For context, I made my own website, using Weebly (now Squarespace). I originally used the free template, then I moved onto a paid tier so I would have a cleaner url and F E A T U R E S like SEO (that’s “search engine optimization” to you (and me) non-IT nerds. (Basically it’s a way search engines find your website. The more SEO tags the page has the more likely google and its ilk will find the page (God, I love parentheticals))).
I liked the idea of a website template that is simple to use, is drag and drop, and doesn’t have too many options to slog through. A friend recommended I try Weebly when I was first facing the fact that I needed a website.
As if being an artist isn’t expensive enough!
But I concede the importance of being easily found when one wants to be seen. Or in my case, heard. A website equals online presence. A good website, in my mind (me not being a coder), is something that is clean, easy to navigate, visually pleasing and balanced, and most importantly WORKS.
A few iterations of my website ago I decided I admired the simplicity of a smooth scrolling webpage. That’s one single page with buttons at the top that take a visitor to a specific part of that one page instead of having to slog through multiple pages of material. Considering how little time I know I have to catch someone’s attention if they’re visiting my page for the first time, I wanted to give them the pertinent stuff and weed out the fluff. I think there’s still a little too much fluff on my home page, but I have a tendency to cut too much of the fat when we all know fat equals flavor (did I mention I was a chef once?) so for now it remains.
ANYWAY, genius I am, I decided to try my hand at coding. Lord save me. I now have a lot of respect for what coders go through, after the little I was exposed to! Like any technology, it’s beautiful when it works but damn when it doesn’t it’s such a pain in the ass to figure out why it won’t.
It took days of feeling like my eyes were getting smaller and smaller as I slogged through instructions that oft didn’t work. Until finally. FINALLY. It did. And it was glorious! And glorious it remained.
Until I started this blog.
Turns out smooth scrolling only works on the page it’s coupled to! I wanted to have a separate page for this blog, to keep some kind of divide between my writing and my work-related VO stuff (check it out here!). But whenever I tried to click on the navigation link to my vocal samples or to my contact page from the blog I couldn’t get it to work. Nowhere seemed to have an answer to solve this particular coupling issue. I nearly bricked my webpage a couple of times. I felt like I was inching closer and closer to being SOL and needing to buy yet another webpage. Knowing how little time I have to keep a visitor’s attention I needed to figure out a way to remove any guessing and confusion.
If nothing else, I am very, very good at just making things work. It took me hours but I did it! Kinda! Now I’ve got a shiny, simple TAKE ME HOME! button for visitors who somehow end up here.
Sorry! And you’re welcome! ?
Va the Vo
Actor, Vocal Pro, and Writer Extraordinaire!