The Witcher star thinks AI voice actors are potentially "dangerous"

Doug Cockle, who voices Geralt of Rivia in The Witcher video games as well as the upcoming Netflix special Sirens of the Deep, has concerns about AI voice cloning. "They're effectively robbing me of income."
The Witcher: Sirens of The Deep | Official Teaser | Netflix
The Witcher: Sirens of The Deep | Official Teaser | Netflix / Netflix

One of the big stories in business this year has been the rise of generative AI, which can produce pictures or text with a few simple prompts. AI can also be used to recreate the performances of human actors onscreen, which was one of the issues debated between actors and Hollywood studios during the actors strike earlier this year. The problem may be even more acute for voice actors whose voices are able to be cloned using the technology.

We're already seeing video game studios, for example, using AI voice cloning technology to supplement human voice actors. A mild example comes from CD Projekt Red, the studio behind The Witcher games as well as Cyberpunk 2077. In a recent expansion for Cyberpunk, CD Projekt Red secured permission from the family of deceased voice actor Viktor Vektor to clone his voice. In that case, they also hired a new actor to say new lines and then used AI technology to make it sound like Vektor was speaking. This scenario probably won't spook too many voice actors, but how far will companies take it?

Even very successful voice actors like Doug Cockle -- who voices Geralt of Rivia in The Witcher video games as well as in Netflix's upcoming animated special Sirens of the Deep -- is wary. "AI is inevitable and developers will use AI," he told IGN. "We are not 100% sure exactly what that means. "They're already doing it in various ways, filling in background, NPC voices, and things like that, which is unfortunate because those voices were all human beings at one point, and the voices are all modelled on human beings. So they have taken someone's voice, put it into their database, digitized it and are using it to say things that the individual never said. There's something unethical about that and so there's a lot of debate going on."

Cockle was actually contacted by an AI company years ago for permission to upload his Geralt voice to its database, but he said no. "But that's not because I don't like AI," he clarified. "It's because I think with voice actors, particularly with voice actors who do main character roles, it is a reality that people are ripping our voices off. That's happening. It's happened to me on multiple occasions. I can't even police it because I would spend all my time policing this stupid stuff."

With the advent of new widely available generative AI technologies, people can use Cockle's Geralt voice with or without access to a proprietary database. That includes fans who make mods, which Cockle takes issue with even if they have good intentions. "Every time somebody does that, they're effectively robbing me of income, and not just me, any other voice actor who they do it with," he said. "We're all watching our voices get used in ways that we would rather they weren't."

Cockle is afraid of a slippery slope, that if fans use his voice to make projects in good faith, it won't be long before other people are using it to make him say things he would never say. "Somebody could use AI to produce something racist using Geralt's voice, using my voice, or just something against anything that most normal people think is good," he said. "That's where the AI gets dangerous. Fake news, false news, false opinions. We're seeing it with politicians now. People are putting things out there. So AI is not the problem. It's the people using AI."

""It's changed a lot as well, because when The Witcher 3 came out, I don't think that people playing games, not that they weren't interested, but they didn't really think about who was voicing these characters. It wasn't something that was of great interest. But I've watched over the years, it has become more and more interesting to players and to fans who the people are behind these voices, and that's a fantastic thing. But it also means that those voices are much more personalized. It's not just Geralt. That is my voice.""

How voice actors are trying to take control of their AI-generated clones

Cockle has already accepted that AI voices are here to stay. He doesn't want to stamp out the practice so much as make sure it remains responsibly used. To that end, he's joined, a company started by voice actor Cissy Jones that creates digital doubles of voice actors' voices with their consent, and which they have control over thereafter.

"If they're going to do this, if this is going to happen, then we need to create a way for the actors to control how their voice is used," Cockle said. "I've spoken with a number of AI developers who are interested in doing a similar kind of thing. So there are people out there who are aware of the potential problem here and are working towards some kind of a solution that will make people happy."

AI has been around for many years, but became a huge part of the conversation this year. It's too early to tell just how far it will go; will some studio try to make a game or movie or TV show using nothing but AI-generated voice actors? And if so, how long could they keep that going, given that AIs require human voice actors to model themselves off of in the first place?

These questions are going to get talked about and possibly settled over the next few years, among businesses, in courts, and online. We'll be watching.

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