Body Data and Ethical Deepfakes

Bourdain never said that...
July 19, 2021

While you were sleeping, Anthony Bourdain’s voice was being deepfaked for inclusion in a new film. 

The documentary entitled Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, features audio of a disembodied Bourdain speaking words that were taken from an email he had written near the end of his life. Will people be cloning you and me soon? Probably not. It took over 10,000 hours of training data (video clips, interviews, etc.) 

At the center of the ethical debate is the documentarian’s choice not to disclose that the recreated audio was, in fact, a facsimile. From the New Yorker’s piece on the news:

[Director Morgan Neville] used the A.I.-generated audio only to narrate text that Bourdain himself had written. Bourdain composed the words; he just—to the best of our knowledge—never uttered them aloud. 

This is a notable twist in the deepfake drama we’ve been covering on Future Commerce since 2018. In that time, we surmised that there were new, creative, uses for the technology. Deepfakes are powered by the collection of body data: our expressions, our vocal inflections, even our attention and gaze. This valuable data sits outside the healthcare and privacy laws that were created some twenty years ago, before the proliferation of internet-scale analytics made such data harvesting commonplace.

“Bourdain wouldn’t have wanted this,” said one of my Twitter followers. Our acceptance of the deepfaking of Anthony Bourdain preys on our parasocial relationship we have with him — we feel close to him because of the time we’ve spent in a one-sided relationship watching him from afar. Our sense of what he “would have wanted” is informed by our belief that we are closer to him than we actually are. In reality, family estates, and even brand-holding companies hold the final say-so when it comes to posthumous celebrity spokespersonship.

Dead Celebs—Delebs, as they’re known—have a quantifiable score for profitability and recognizability to those that own their likenesses and their artwork after death. Living celebrities have a means of protecting themselves, too, while they’re still alive. As we wrote in Insiders #059 Virtual Influencers Killed the Dead Celebrity

Some celebs have taken pre-mortem measures to prevent this from happening, as was the case with Robin Williams, who restricted the use of his image for 25 years after his death. Restrictions are often granular, too, restricting the license of a deleb's image to alcohol and tobacco brands, for instance.

As deepfakes push the boundaries of the posthumous marketing we’re susceptible to, “Velebs” are pushing the boundaries of what virtual influencers we’re paying attention today. More and more examples of virtual celebrities are popping up, something we explored in our newest Insiders piece we published this week in collaboration with No Best Practices. 

Read about Digital Luxury Experiences over here on Future Commerce Insiders.

Livestream beauty tips go mainstream. Ulta Beauty has paired up with Supergreat, an app created for people to share and give honest reviews about beauty products. Users can watch daily live streams of real Ulta shoppers and get honest feedback and advice.

Not another (un)teenage metahuman fiction vlog. There’s a new intergalactic alter ego on the loose. On the one hand, it's incredible that a one-man team can do this in 3.5 weeks with consumer hardware thanks to Unreal Engine. On the other hand, the twitch and insta metahumans are much more compelling because the 'creator' isn't prominent or featured, keeping the air of mystery and immersion. Also, the storyline is a little meh.

Star power vs. COVID. The White House partnered with pop star Olivia Rodrigo to promote vaccinations among young healthy Americans. She met with President Biden, gave a quick message on the importance and ease of vaccination, then she and Dr. Fauci read some tweets together. VP Harris also joined in and posted on Instagram that vaccines are 'good 4 u.’

Peloton goes gamer. The fitness bike company announced plans today to launch a video game for owners and subscribers where players control a rolling wheel as they pedal. Get ready for the nostalgic feel of Mario Kart racing set in the color scheme of Tron, but executed in a sophisticated, members-only kind of way… and powered by your leg muscles.

Life imitates social media. Starbucks has debuted a quick order system using QR codes for complicated TikTok drinks. Customers of the chain have always enjoyed having their own special creation with lots of scribbles on the side of their cups, and now the benevolent Beveragier is playing along. We’re sure that Starbuck employees are going to love this.

Holy scoop of macaroni! National Mac & Cheese Day was this week, and in Kraft’s attempt to be cool, they went straight for frozen. Still available to win in their sweepstakes for two more days is their limited edition Kraft Macaroni & Cheese flavored ice cream.

Deepfake Bourdain. The recently released Anthony Bourdain documentary by Morgan Neville is raising questions of ethics, as 3 sentences spoken by the late Bourdain in the documentary were never spoken by him during his lifetime. They were his actual written words, but Neville used AI technology to recreate Bourdain’s voice to make his words audible for the documentary. Many fans expressed a level of unease and even anger once the knowledge was made public.

Clickable joy. If you’re feeling kinda gloomy, NPR is offering little bits of positivity with their joy generator. The project is based on scientific research showing that feelings are not in fact hard-wired, rather they are a combination of what our brains are responding to both now and in the past.

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