Scarlett Johansson Turned Down an Offer to Become the Voice of Open AI

For this story to make sense you have to know about a movie that came out in 2013 called Her. The movie was essentially a science fiction romance about a guy played by Joaquin Phoenix who falls in love with an operating system voiced by Scarlett Johansson. Johansson never appears in the movie but her voice is a constant presence. She is the character referred to by the title of the film. Here’s the trailer for those who haven’t seen it.

That was a decade ago when talk about AI was mostly science fiction. But jump forward to last week and Open AI was rolling out a new version of its Chap GPT software. Sam Altman made a big deal about its ability to have natural conversation with several different voices including one called “Sky.” 

Immediately, people noticed that Sky sounded an awful lot like Scarlett Johansson. In fact, people have been saying that since Sky was first revealed sometime last year. But the comparisons made news over the past week and last night OpenAI posted a statement on X saying that it was pausing the availability of Sky while the company answered questions about it.

That link goes to an explainer in which the company claimed that all of its voices were the result of work with specific voice actors.

Voice Mode is one of the most beloved features in ChatGPT. Each of the five distinct voices you hear has been carefully selected through an extensive process spanning five months involving professional voice actors, talent agencies, casting directors, and industry advisors. We’re sharing more on how the voices were chosen…

We believe that AI voices should not deliberately mimic a celebrity’s distinctive voice—Sky’s voice is not an imitation of Scarlett Johansson but belongs to a different professional actress using her own natural speaking voice. To protect their privacy, we cannot share the names of our voice talents…

In May of 2023, the casting agency and our casting directors issued a call for talent. In under a week, they received over 400 submissions from voice and screen actors. To audition, actors were given a script of ChatGPT responses and were asked to record them. These samples ranged from answering questions about mindfulness to brainstorming travel plans, and even engaging in conversations about a user’s day.

There’s more but you get the idea. This was a long process and the implication is that any similarity to Scarlett Johansson is coincidental. But today, Johannsson is telling her side of the story and it turns out Open AI forgot to mention a few things. Most significantly, that it tried to offer her the gig and she turned it down.

Last September, I received an offer from Sam Altman, who wanted to hire me to voice the current ChatGPT 4.0 system. 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 Al. He said he felt that my voice would be comforting to people.

After much consideration and for personal reasons, declined the offer.

Nine months later, my friends, family and the general public all noted how much the newest system named ‘Sky’ sounded like me.

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. 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.

He really did tweet that.

She goes on to say that two days before the launch of the new voice, Altman contacted her agent again asking her to reconsider. Before she could even respond, the company launched the new product. 

Is the new voice an exact match for Johansson. I don’t think it’s an exact match in the sense that you can’t tell them apart, but close enough that it’s easy to see why people were making the comparison. 

What I find hard to believe, given the history, is that that similarity was a coincidence. Clearly Altman wanted this voice to be Johansson and also there’s this little tidbit. Altman has previously singled out the film Her saying how much he liked it and how it inspired him.

I’m assuming Open AI denied this was a sound-alike because they don’t want to get sued but I don’t see how they are going to convince a jury this was anything but intentional. I found this comparison posted on Reddit (from several months ago). Here’s Johansson from the movie Her.

And here’s Sky:

I mean, she’s still not as charming as Scarlett Johansson, but Open AI was clearly trying.

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