Apr 3, 2019

An AI-generated Ellen DeGeneres voice is the future of deepfakes

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

If you want to make a video deepfake, you can download free software and create it yourself. Someone with a bit of savvy and a chunk of time can churn out side-splitters like this one. Not so for audio deepfakes — at least not yet. Good synthetic audio is still the domain of startups, Big Tech and academic research.

What's happening: Pindrop, the audio biometrics company, is developing synthetic voices in order to train its own defenses to detect them. Vijay Balasubramaniyan, Pindrop's CEO, shared several fake voices with Axios.

How it works: Pindrop's system listened to countless hours of DeGeneres talking in real life — mostly narrating her own audiobooks — and then used a cutting-edge AI technique to develop an impersonator, improving the synthetic voice until the system could no longer tell it apart from the real thing. Now, anyone can type a phrase into the system and have it read out in DeGeneres' voice.

Axios listened to this and several other Pindrop-generated voices. Each captured the real speakers' idiosyncrasies, but they were exposed by their robotic-sounding pace and cadence. To this, Balasubramaniyan replied:

"You are actually identifying all the things it takes to start mimicking a million years of human evolution in voice. Our synthesis systems do a good job at synthesizing a voice but not yet things like cadence, emotion and flair, which are all active areas of research."

But that doesn't mean these imperfect fakes couldn't cause some mischief now. Imagine if you were already expecting to receive a phone call from someone. You probably wouldn't be too suspicious if he sounded a bit robotic or stilted if he told you he was sick and driving through a tunnel.

  • "We're communicating through this phone system that has a lot of security issues," says Aviv Ovadya, a misinformation researcher and founder of the Thoughtful Technology Project.
  • This is how Charlie Warzel, formerly of BuzzFeed News, tricked his own mother into falling for an AI mimicry of his voice.

Go deeper: Defending against audio deepfakes before it's too late

Go deeper

Cuomo says New York is "literally going day-to-day with our supplies"

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in a press conference on Sunday that New York is struggling to maintain medical supplies while combatting the novel coronavirus — operating "literally" on a "day-to-day" basis.

Why it matters: New York City has become an epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, facing mass quarantines and stay-at-home orders. Cuomo said Saturday that New York reported 630 new deaths in 24 hours — an "all-time increase" that beat the previous day's record of 562 deaths.

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Global: Total confirmed cases as of 11 a.m. ET: 1,225,360 — Total deaths: 66,542 — Total recoveries: 252,615Map.
  2. U.S.: Total confirmed cases as of 11 a.m. ET: 312,249 — Total deaths: 8,503 — Total recoveries: 15,021Map.
  3. Public health latest: CDC launches national trackers and recommends face coverings in public. Federal government will cover costs of COVID-19 treatment for uninsured. Surgeon general says this week will be "our Pearl Harbor, our 9/11 moment."
  4. 2020 latest: "We have no contingency plan," Trump said on the 2020 Republican National Convention. "We're having the convention at the end of August." Biden says DNC may have to hold virtual convention.
  5. States updates: The Louisiana governor warned that his state is set to run out of ventilators in four days. Illinois governor claims Trump doesn't understand the word "federal."
  6. Oil latest: Monday meeting among oil-producing countries to discuss supply curbs is reportedly being delayed amid tensions between Saudi Arabia and Russia.
  7. Work update: Employees still going to work are often facing temperature checks, distanced work stations, protective devices and mass absences.
  8. What should I do? Pets, moving and personal health. Answers about the virus from Axios expertsWhat to know about social distancingQ&A: Minimizing your coronavirus risk.
  9. Other resources: CDC on how to avoid the virus, what to do if you get it.

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Illinois governor: "The president does not understand the word 'federal'"

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker said on CNN's "State of the Union" Sunday that President Trump's comments about the federal government's stockpile of medical equipment suggest he "does not understand the word 'federal.'"

Why it matters: White House adviser Jared Kushner argued at a press briefing last week that the "notion of the federal stockpile was it’s supposed to be our stockpile; it’s not supposed to be state stockpiles that they then use."