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Scarlett Johansson In the OpenAI Saga

Johansson's co-founder at skincare brand The Outset, Kate Foster, details how the actor and entrepreneur had been careful to avoid letting companies use her voice. Then it happened anyway.

By Inc.Arabia Staff
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Every business owner worth her salt is now thinking about how to utilize AI--from the transformative power of being able to scan and synthesize HR documents and legal filings to simply penning marketing copy, the technology presents ample opportunity for future-looking founders. Except when you're Scarlett Johansson.

As the co-founder, alongside Kate Foster, of The Outset, a New York City-based skincare brand, Johansson surely has need to utilize the tools, but she faces a dueling need to crack down on them. As is now widely known, Johansson, who famously enlivened the artificially intelligent voice in the 2013 Spike Jones film Her, cried foul (rightly) over the strikingly similar-sounding voice of OpenAI's ChatGPT, Sky.

"When I heard the released demo, I was shocked, angered and in disbelief that Mr. Altman would pursue a voice that sounded so eerily similar to mine that my closest friends and news outlets could not tell the difference," Johansson said in a statement, referring to OpenAI co-founder Sam Altman. "Mr. Altman even insinuated that the similarity was intentional, tweeting a single word, 'her'--a reference to the film in which I voiced a chat system, Samantha, who forms an intimate relationship with a human."

OpenAI clapped back saying that Sky's voice is not Johannsson's--and the company denied using her beautifully idiosyncratic voice to train its technology. However, it was revealed this week that OpenAI approached the actor prior to the release of Sky. Altman apparently told Johansson "that he felt that by my voicing the system, I could bridge the gap between tech companies and creatives and help consumers feel comfortable with the seismic shift concerning humans and AI. He said he felt that my voice would be comforting to people."

In an emailed statement, Altman noted that Sky's voice was never intended to resemble Johansson's, and he said an actor hired to voice the role was cast prior to his outreach to Johansson. Following the backlash, OpenAI halted the use of Sky in ChatGPT.

OpenAI wasn't the first company to approach the star; some even offered to help Johansson use her voice to grow her company. According to Foster, "we were approached by a vendor that said, 'Hey we can mimic Scarlett's voice. We can send voice notes of her to all of your customers.'" Foster intimated the details to me on stage at Inc.'s Founders House in Austin, in March. Naturally, the entrepreneurs shot the vendor down. (The full conversation is available in the video below.) 

"Even though there may be some synergy there," Foster said, "I was like, 'that's probably not a good fit.'"

Why? Because every good entrepreneur knows that authenticity matters. If Johansson were to lend her voice--which she uses for both her art and for spreading the message about clean beauty--she knows it would sully the impact of her message. Her voice would lose its power.

And that makes what OpenAI has done all the more despicable. Even if Johansson's voice wasn't used in the making of Sky's, hers certainly inspired it. And who knows what Sky (or that voice that sounds like Scarlett Johansson's) will say? We've all learned about AI hallucinations--who's to say Sky won't fly off the handle in some embarrassing way or mouth the recipe for the bomb that sets fire the world. Whoosh. Let that sink in.

At a minimum, the execs at OpenAI have taken the choice away from her. They've taken away Johansson's ability to pick and choose the vendors she wants to work with and how she shows up in the world. That has to be tough.

As Foster told me in March, choice is vital for entrepreneurs. "There are some amazingly innovative tools that exist, but I think it's going to be up to each brand--and each consumer--to figure out what is the right balance for them."

For sure, AI--like all new technology--presents opportunity for the forward thinkers among us, but it can't be allowed to steal. That's not ethical and it's anathema to business.

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