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SYFY WIRE Artificial Intelligence

This cutting-edge, emotional AI voice can flirt and say ‘I love you’ - and sounds a little too real

A wispy-voiced computer that craves intimacy? Consider us officially weirded out.

By Benjamin Bullard

Just what you've always wanted: A computer that falls in love with you. As refinements in artificial intelligence continue to progress the technology upward and out of the uncanny valley, getting an AI to interact with humans in a way that feels, well, human has remained one of the elusive milestones in earning it widespread practical adoption.

That all (quite literally) sounds like it's changing, and after hearing the wispy, yearning voice that AI startup Sonantic has crafted from nothing but ones and zeroes, we’re not sure we’re ready. To commemorate Valentine’s Day, the company shared a lengthy audio clip that shows off the emotive power of its AI-enabled voice 'bot. While it's still just working off a pre-programmed script, let’s just say the gap between human and AI expression is closing fast. 

Check it out:

As Sonantic’s cooing AI shows, we’re not dealing with some 1980s-vintage sci-fi cyborg that pines for human company in a cold metallic voice. The fact that it sounds so real is what weirds us out the most, in fact: If this ‘bot were dishing out such convincing TMI on the other end of a phone call, how would you even know you weren’t talking to a machine?

Maybe we’re just hung up on love in particular, because it’s just one of many human emotions Sonantic’s AI is designed to persuasively vocalize. Speaking with The Verge, company CEO Zeena Qureshi described its algorithm tech as “Photoshop for voice,” capable of emulating a range of feelings from anger and fear to happiness and exuberant joy. 

Though other companies are pursuing their own versions of AI voices that mimic people, co-founder John Flynn told The Verge that Sonantic’s technology has achieved an extra measure of user-controlled customization that helps it stand out. “[O]ur research goal was to see if we could model subtle emotions. Bigger emotions are a little easier to capture,” he said. “…I think that’s the main difference — our ability to direct and control and edit and sculpt a performance.”

The company reportedly took inspiration for its romantic robo-voice from Samantha, the Scarlett Johansson-portrayed AI assistant in Spike Jonze’s Her that main character Theordore (Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with — and for now, entertainment and marketing remain the primary fields where the tech is likely to be used. “Our clients are mostly AAA game studios, entertainment studios, and we’re branching out into other industries,” Flynn said. “We recently did a partnership with Mercedes [to customize its in-car digital assistant] earlier this year.”

Hey, it’s tough to find true love in a world that moves as fast as ours. And just like Her’s Theodore, there are probably real people out there who’re ready to fall for an all-too-real-sounding robot. We just hope Sonantic’s next-level tech — “the first AI that can flirt,” as the company puts it — doesn’t end up getting its own heart broken in the process.