AI and Scarlett Johansson

In a bizarre case of life imitating art, actress Scarlett Johansson finds herself in a battle with OpenAI over the AI company’s alleged unauthorized mimicking of her distinctive voice.

Back in 2013, Johansson voiced an advanced AI virtual assistant named Samantha in the Spike Jonze film “Her,” playing a role that explored the future implications of humans forming emotional bonds with artificial intelligence. Little did she know that a decade later, she would be accusing a real AI company of trying to replicate her own voice without consent.

The controversy began last week when OpenAI unveiled a new AI voice assistant called “Sky” during a product demo in San Francisco. As the voice spoke, showering the presenter with cheerful encouragement, many listeners immediately noticed it sounded jarringly similar to Johansson’s distinctive low, raspy tone.

The actor revealed that OpenAI’s CEO Sam Altman had twice reached out to her over the past year seeking to license her actual voice for the company’s AI assistant. Both times, Johansson declined the requests. Despite her refusals, OpenAI seemed to deliberately mimic her vocal likeness with the “Sky” model unveiled last week, Johansson alleges.

“Despite those refusals, OpenAI used a voice that sounded eerily similar to mine,” Johansson stated, adding that she has hired a lawyer and demanded the company stop using the “Sky” voice. If it is proven that OpenAI did intentionally try to recreate Johansson’s voice artificially without a license, after she refused to provide it, she likely has a very strong case of voice misappropriation and violating her publicity rights.

OpenAI has pushed back, claiming the “Sky” voice belongs to a different professional actor and was not intended to imitate Johansson. However, the company quickly suspended the release of “Sky” over the weekend “out of respect” for the actor.

In her statement, Johansson seemed to express a mix of personal indignation at having her vocal identity mimicked, as well as broader ethical concerns about AI companies exploiting individuals’ voices and likenesses without permission.

“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,” Johansson said, recounting Altman’s pitch to her about licensing her real voice.

As AI language models and voice assistants become increasingly human-like and ubiquitous, this saga raises critical questions about celebrity rights, consent and how the tech industry can avoid appropriating individuals’ identities in the pursuit of realism and commercial success.

For Johansson, it’s an unsettling full-circle moment eerily reminiscent of her role a decade ago playing a human captivated by an AI’s simulated voice in “Her.” Except this time, it’s her own voice at the center of the controversy over the ethical boundaries of artificial intelligence.