0038: Dr. Robert Pondillo: The Ethics of AI Voices
Hey there, hero!
I wouldn’t be where I am today without mentors, and one of my most valuable mentors is Dr. Robert Pondillo. I grew up listening to him when he was the nighttime DJ on a station he eventually helped me get a show on, 1220/WGAR in Cleveland. It’s safe to say he was instrumental in my success.
He went on, after he retired from radio, to return to school for his doctorate in Mass Communications, and taught that for many years at Middle Tennessee State University. He often lectured on the state of media, and as a talent himself, has a particularly interesting viewpoint on how we operate as VO artists.
I had the chance to talk with him regarding the use of AI voices in the documentary about Anthony Bourdain, called Roadrunner – the director used what some have called unethical and misleading production techniques to put words in Bourdain’s mouth that he wrote, but never actually said. He did this using an AI voice generator.
You probably are concerned about the ethics, and even the use itself, of AI voices in the various categories of VO work we now perform live as humans.
Listen in as Bob gives me his take on this industry-changing development.
so i want you to do me a favor i want you to listen to this dialogue that i’m about to share with you and i want you to think in your mind what do these two speakers look like i can see this hurts but i had to tell you sooner forget it i trusted you but if you look at it you never listen you don’t listen you’re never here when i need you okay got it in your head are they tall are they short are they old are they young obviously one’s male one’s female but what do they look like i think you’ll be surprised as we’ll find out as we have a frank conversation about artificial intelligence voices on this episode of the vo heroes podcast my buddy dr robert pondillo the reason i have any success in my life whatsoever how are you sir very well david not true but thank you no it is it is absolutely true and you know for people who haven’t heard this story bob’s the reason i’m in i was in radio i got into radio i fell in love with radio to begin with and then he was selfless in terms of helping me succeed early in my career we worked together many times over the years uh not only on radio but also in films bob’s a writer uh bob is a filmmaker bob is a funny comedian he’s a podcaster and you know jermaine to our discussion today he is a uh currently retired but former professor of mass communications at middle tennessee state university in the borough of murfreesboro tennessee and uh has taught and and uh and been engaged in our business from many many angles uh he’s written books on um on uh what do you call it when you set censorship censorship thank you so much see even those words those words and the words i want to talk about today in the in the opening of the of the podcast i asked people to tell me what they thought uh the people that were speaking looked like and i did that on purpose because usually people go yeah you know young guy maybe 30 uh you know military type uh the girls you know uh you know brunette or blonde or redhead or whatever they have in their head whatever they see in their head and it would be really really interesting to some people who listened to that conversation and knew that these voices looked like this yes a blade server these these voices these are not your grandfather’s artificial intelligence voices these voices were created from digital models of real human beings voices but they don’t sound like siri they don’t sound like alexa you know they sound like emotional uh varied and directed talent doing that dialogue was from a video game but you know we we see this happening all over the place and just recently another incident occurred that uh brought this all to the fore and when i got to talking with bob about it on the phone because we call each other uh a lot and you know we stay in touch which i hardly recommend if you have a lifetime friend stay in touch with them because you know you wanna you wanna have that connection um we were talking about this uh documentary that just came out uh over the past weekend i believe it’s called roadrunner is that right correct yes roadrunner and it’s about who it’s about anthony bourdain right and his life you haven’t seen it yet i haven’t although i’ve tried it’s in the theaters and it’s um i i think this is a part of the promotion effort putting it in theaters first it’s going to eventually be on netflix but uh to get a little jazz a little little buzz going you know right they put it up on uh they put it in amc and other theaters around the country so yeah it’s out there now but i haven’t seen it yet and i’m interested in seeing yeah the director of the documentary is the same guy that directed the documentary about um the mr rogers mr rogers biggie pop keith richards he’s done a lot of big big and uh quite successful films yeah and i believe the the documentary is called won’t you be my neighbor yeah right yeah i loved it i absolutely loved it i mean you know i worked in pittsburgh for a while i knew the story but i didn’t know the whole story and uh it was done in 2017 and 18 released in 2019 that particular documentary so i don’t think he used any ai voices in that but he did use ai voices in the anthony bourdain documentary that just came out what he did was uh he took anthony bourdain’s dialogue that he had recorded or had acquired in the footage that he used in the documentary and he went to a lab and fed it into an artificial intelligence deep learning uh set of software and then said okay have anthony say these words they’re words that he wrote but they’re not words that he could find anthony bourdain actually speaking and i think he was not ready for the firestorm that this has created because what it brought to the fore is a lot of different issues and in the limited amount of time that i have with you i want to discuss as many as we can the first of which is using an artificial intelligence voice and not saying so and then doubling down in the interviews over the weekend going you know what we can have a moral conversation about this later but i’m here to promote the documentary right that’s kind of the attitude that it felt like when he was was saying these things documentary filmmaking has an inherent uh mission to be truthful yes to tell stories but to be truthful so you raised your eyebrows tell me what you what you meant by that little raise of the eyebrows well when we walk into a theater and uh sit down we are watching a digital stream or a film uh projected onto in a darkened room projected onto a screen 40 feet tall and we’re eating popcorn or whatever we’re doing and um to make a movie work any kind of movie we have to suspend our disbelief we have to we can’t say i’m sitting in a room in the darken room and we have to go i want this movie to entertain me i want this movie to talk to me and speak to me in some way so um even documentaries even documentaries when you when you look at how film is constructed you got to look at you know a documentary filmmaker like a morgan neville who’s the guy we’re talking about he sits down like you said he looks at tens of thousands of feet of film uh you know tons of uh images and music and uh uh gosh you name it you know he looks at everything and he says how can i tell a story now the name of the movie is road runner a film about anthony mordane bourdain not the film about not the film that is the most complete and true caricature or whatever of anthony bourdain but a film about anthony bourdain so this is his take this is his he’s the director he’s deciding what what you’re going to see and how you’re going to see it he takes all this information and he starts grouping it in a way to make a beginning a middle and an end rising action falling action all the things that compel you to watch a movie right and sounds and everything else and uh many of the critics are saying this is a brilliant piece of work they’re saying it’s a documentary that you won’t soon forget i mean some of the people on esquire in esquire and vanity fair and all the higher you know all the the those who are considered true film critics are saying good things about this yeah so all these things uh you know you know as a person that makes film and as a person that works in in audio that there’s something called a timeline on an edit machine and you you take bits over here and bits over there and you put it there then you put bits here and then you do this and you do that and you and you craft a sound or you craft a you know a series of images that turn into a scene um but does that mean that we’re watching the scene for real i mean remember when when back in the early 1900s late 1800s uh you know when motion pictures first began they thought well we’ll just put a you know a camera in the audience and film it and like a stage show yeah would that be considered a movie then well we wouldn’t consider that a movie today because innovations have occurred those innovations contain close-ups wide shots dream sequences all sorts of new ideas that were used to enhance the entertainment process you know the and the telling of the story sure so i look then i look at this thing this ei thing and i think well you know is this just another thing another tool in the director’s toolbox that is going to be now used because it’s probably cheap uh you could argue that as you said bourdain said these words or wrote these words but never actually spoke them uh can you argue that well this is an accurate representation and you know and i would say across the board no but uh it is going to be a compelling way to make a hollywood movie and i think to be fair it is the truth about what he was thinking certainly he wrote it down um but is it true that he said those things in a way that they could be captured and used as voiceover in a film the answer is no but you’re saying it sounds like you’re saying it’s okay that’s fair game in terms of telling the story because film is artificial to begin with well in a way i’m saying that yes but we were going to talk about ethics today and ethics is a tool that we that helps us i want to talk about that yeah right that helps us make decisions it’s a branch of philosophy that helps us that asks the question what should we do how shall we live right so this means there’s certain you know yeah i could think certain things you could think certain things but then there’s a community of people you know that have to decide if this is a good or bad thing like um uh being uh you know uh gosh is uh hurting women you know raping women is that a good or bad thing well some you know i don’t know outside of bill cosby i don’t know who would say well that’s a pretty good thing um well the ethics questions that are raised here are manifold and they are in particular very very uh frightening to actors to voice talent you know he may be dealing with the ethical issue of whether or not uh generating out of whole cloth uh sounds that never actually occurred really in nature that’s one ethical question and it’s more of a question of storytelling and you know i don’t i don’t really have much of a problem with that but what it did do is cast a spotlight on the ability to do that and the ability to take a normal human voice a voice that we all know and all recognize if we’ve seen any of his uh travel shows or his cooking shows or we’ve seen him in interviews or we’ve heard the stories about him not being a very nice guy from time to time you know he speaks and we know his voice and what i saw happen over the weekend was an explosion of conversation on social media on my telephone uh from people saying um wait a minute hold on i thought like you know ai voices was coming like you know in the 25th century you know i i didn’t think it and and i think it’s time now to have a conversation about the fact that technology as usual is neutral it’s neither positive nor negative it can be harmful it can be beneficial and it will affect the status quo and i think that as voice talent we need to know that coming down the pike there will be both above board actors and not so above board actors that will use this technology instead of using human voices there are people who are coaches for the most part i coach voiceover just for pure transparency who are saying nah don’t worry about it they’ll never be good enough to you know uh to take your job well that that dialogue that i played at the beginning they’ve already taken your job and in the area of voiceover that i’ve made the most money in ivr uh they long ago took over your job uh there’s there’s a there’s a an already traveled path and we’re about to see that road widen get asphalt put on top of it get lanes put on it and the question is do we have a future as human storytellers or will everything be relegated at some point in time to artificial intelligence what’s your thoughts well um if we’re looking at this in an ethical way a communal ethical way we have to employ certain thinking behaviors like inductive reasoning not necessarily by that i mean experiential stuff stuff that you know ideological stuff stuff that’s in the air that we don’t see or feel stuff that is uh just around us and it just is that’s the way things are you know that’s the great power of ideology it’s it’s like fish and water they can’t see the water we can’t see the ideology and uh so we’re we we think you know we use our inductive reasoning to think about something called axiology which is a big word for what’s valuable so values values uh principles beliefs norms these are the things that help us understand ethics and make a good choice because the ancients used to think that if we could just make a good choice choice we could say we could change the world maybe nudge it just a little bit that’s a very sweet thing to think but they weren’t living in a world of 7 billion people either but anyway um so we’ve got this we’ve got this thing and we’ve got this new tool that these producers are going to use and will they use it is the question should they use it i guess we we can do it but should we and that is a difficult question one we can answer when we you and i can answer because we have certain beliefs and notions about uh how important it is for the art and the craft and this and that but what is their value what values are they using to determine this and their value is the hollywood value of uh show business it’s the business part you know it’s the let’s uh let’s do this because we can and it’s going to save us money and we live in a capitalist culture there’s an ideology that surrounds us so that and it’s good enough right it doesn’t have to be you know it’s good enough for government work you know it’s good enough to pass yeah it’s good enough in fact it’s getting better and better and better all the time the problem is just like everything else is um usually producers who don’t have a sense of craft art skill uh anything except the bottom line um think that’s what people will want and that’s what people love and that’s what people will keep buying and a certain percentage of the audience certainly will do that because they don’t they can’t hear it and see it and what have you either you know what this is akin to david i was thinking about this before we started it’s like who in the world would ever spend a dollar two dollars three dollars five dollars on a bottle of water who would i mean it’s what water is right over there i can get it’s for free well free you know what i mean and yet look what happened we’ve got bottles of water huge industry billions and billions of dollars in industry now and yet we still have tap water you know and we still go there and and drink it and so somehow in some way these two things leave synchronously you know they live concurrently and you think well that doesn’t make any sense i think this is what’s going to happen here i think yes they will use it but there’s a certain there’s a certain wall i think ai is gonna eventually hit they’ll be able to do it great they’ll be able to make it speak in in um uh you know like a person from great britain it’ll sound like a person from the uh from england and they can right so all sorts of cool things they’ll be able to do but nobody with the exception of morgan freeman you know morgan freeman will be morgan freeman all the time and the next morgan freeman will eventually cut through and he will be a stan he or she will be a standard you know so i i i think there’s going to be some kind of concurrent thing that will happen in this uh in this situation there’ll be i mean you just got to have new people you’ve got to have new exciting new people that burst upon the scene that is com that will be compelling for audiences to want to see and hear yeah that’s right there’s a lot of different a lot of different angles to this and i’ve given it a lot of thought because it’s not something that’s like all of a sudden a big surprise it’s been coming for years and years and years um when i worked in ivr and was doing live uh prompts on phone systems there was very crude um not even artificial intelligence voices just digital voices the artificial intelligence layer came in when somebody said oh if we keep feeding real voices into this into this data machine we can make it better and better and better bits and bits at a time using artificial intelligence and and the thought that i’ve been giving and i want to i want to kind of lay this out for you and i want to get your thoughts on it the the the thought that i have is that we have layers of expertise and effectiveness in everything that we do some people are really good at something some people are just serviceable at something and some people just really can’t do those very same things that other people are expert at right and i think that there’s going to end up being the notion of ai voices and bespoke voices or human voices or natural voices or some word that means you know we got a person to do this right and i think where we are is we’re just prior to where uh car manufacturers were in the early 1900s we’re where the buggy whip people were i don’t think we’re going to be out of business i think people are going to still ride horses to a degree um but i don’t think it’s going to be as as as as clear as to what is human and what is artificial intelligence i think that most people because they don’t buy based on quality napster showed us that you know napster music was hardly high fidelity it wasn’t like you were sitting in the middle of the sweet spot of a surround sound system listening to you know uh rap music when napster let you download anything it was kind of crappy in terms of its of its engineering but it didn’t matter because people don’t buy based on high quality they just don’t they they listen to am radio for the message they listen for the information they listen for the sporting event or the conservative talk show host or whatever it doesn’t matter that it doesn’t sound as good as fm radio and i think if anything yes we should be aware of what’s going on in that space as voice talent i’m talking specifically as voice talent what conclusion can a voice talent make about what’s coming down the pike and not in the 25th century but in the next five years and that is if you want to continue as a voice talent in this business and compete effectively with what will be better and better and cheaper and easier to use tools that can create a sound similar and competitive to a human being and if you don’t think that’s true if you just got your head in the sand and you don’t think that’s true rewind this podcast and listen to that that clip i played and that’s just one one example you need to make sure you’re on top of your game you need to make sure that you are someone that a producer would go no no we need to get so and so to do we need to get bob pandillo to do that voice because he’s really i don’t want to do i don’t want to use the ai voices i want to use bob i want him i want him in the studio get him in the studio you know i i think that people really need to double down on raising their skill level both as a performer and as a show business business person and realize that the best people will you know rise to the top and and be you know be hired but i also think we can’t deny that this is coming we can’t try to legislate it away we can’t try to regulate it uh with union rules away we can have rules about you know disclosure which i think is one of the other mistakes that morgan made is he didn’t tell anybody it just got found out and this is what happened so what are your thoughts on all that well let me take the last part uh first then um this notion that uh this this controversy has just burst upon the scene is very interesting especially when it comes two days before the movie is released you know what i mean something’s up i did something’s up i think this is a marketing opportunity and and they saw it as a way to create a little controversy and maybe people will uh come out to see it you know because of that also it affects a very small group of people you know the voiceover group out there i mean there’s a lot of folks involved but i mean in terms of a large audience what’s what’s the problem right i’m sure that’ll be the thing but this is where ethics comes back in david i think we have to think about community the community has to be involved in this the community of voice talent which like you said maybe you can’t legislate it but maybe the um the unions do have to get involved in this because they’re hassle they already are just yeah they already are i’m on the voiceover committee i’m on the audiobook steering committee we’re already talking about it we’re already negotiating with producers on the use of it and the disclosure of it and the also the the ways that voice talent can be compensated as a model for artificial intelligence voices and there are some voice talent going no no i’m not doing that no they can they can use my voice forever well if they could use your voice forever but pay you forever whenever it’s used well maybe that changes the calculus of your you know your rejection of it maybe it does and it goes that goes back to the values question the question of axiology most valuable and in a culture that celebrates money like ours uh of course you know if if that if that compensation could be had if that could be made well then you know now you’re talking now i’m i’m interested in in the value that this thing could give me you know if if any but again the the question of not uh disclosing the fact that mo in fact why don’t they they could have very easily put up a a graphic that said you know uh you know much of this or in fact don’t they do that they say characters in this movie have been collapsed uh for the telling of the story or something sure you know sometimes that comes up it’s not required but sometimes they do but i think we’re moving into an area that that tells us for those who care this might be uh a significant thing to do sure that’s what i was thinking about so um yeah i think the community in general has to be interested in this because we’re talking about what’s true but it’s a movie and then you think well what does that even mean what’s true you know it’s possible that a film could be completely false but full of truisms you know yeah and certainly in the documentary space there have been plenty of examples of that misinformation and politicized issues sure uh you know so it’s not like yeah it’s not like documentaries are the be-all end-all encyclopedia of what is true right right it’s a um it’s a like you say it’s a documentary and so be it so um but still it’s an entertainment and uh it is a you know it has to be uh by the community that it’s going to harm it has to be looked at by representatives of that community and that’s why you know legislation or uh your union or what have you should should take a look at it and decide what’s going to be valuable for its members it just seems to make sense if you were to give advice to a voice talent on how to look at new technology especially technology that threatens to a degree their livelihood you and i have come through relatively the same time not you were a little ahead of me but we’ve come through great changes in recording technology recording mediums the locations of where things have been recorded i mean we went i you know we went from real to real to digital audio workstations to uh you know on computer apps that do that for us the microphones only you only go to a studio to record now you know we kind of record at home and yeah it’s good enough you know that kind of stuff yeah everything has changed over time and we’ve created ways to adapt if you were to talk to a voice talent who’s sitting there right now going why am i even in this business they’re just going to take all the jobs from me you know it’s going to be like automation that song by by uh uh the guy that did hello mata hello father alan alan sherman yeah you know he did a parody of the song fascination and it was it was automation i’m told that’s why i got fired and i’m out in the cold and you know it applies today and by the way if i have to pay rights for that let me know um but what would you say to a talent who is you know understandably scared well don’t be scared um it it that doesn’t help does it i think the um the thing to remember is that you are unique you are you there is only i mean there are a lot of people doing what you’re doing but there’s only one david lawrence you know there’s only one way uh he can be and uh his is uh what makes him compelling is because it it’s him so that’s what you know the fundamental thing applies as times goes by it stops us buying and time will go by but we’re always going to be in need of those who can um speak in a certain way and behave in a certain way and be exemplars of our of our culture and you can be that exemplar because it’s you because it’s your voice and it’s your image and it’s your attitude and it’s you you know and that’s it’s the uniqueness i think and that’s another thing that hollywood is always looking for what’s the new thing who is the new who’s the next who you know so i i think you’ve got to remember that and sometimes it’s hard because you know your mind plays tricks on you and you think well who the hell am i i’m nobody well cut that out you’re very much somebody and you’re very much uh you know now are you going to be recognized for that that ability well that’s something we all face who knows but it’s a it’s a exciting job you know world to be in and an exciting business so why not give it a try yeah and as we as we wrap up here um i i i think that there’s one other thing that is kind of you can’t beat you can’t fight against it and that is if you have a storyteller inside you you kind of can’t push it away i mean you can you can deny it for a period of time but if you really want to tell stories either as a writer or as a director or as a filmmaker or as a mass communications professor or as a voice talent you really can’t deny that and you should embrace it and you should whether there’s i mean there’s competition all over the place if you want to look at it that way there’s other voice talent there’s celebrities there’s people who are coming up after you have that are are moving faster in their journey than you are and there’s artificial intelligence but if you have it inside you yeah my advice is don’t deny it and make sure that you groom it that you grow it that you burnish it and polish it and become expert at it so that you can uh you know do what you want to do what you’re made to do yeah what people are buying they’re not certainly not buying the microphone they’re not buying the technology you know what i mean by the way i got to tell you that is a really great instance of putting your mic sock on properly that’s thank you that’s just beautiful it’s gorgeous david lawrence taught me that by the way he sent me that this is my birthday present from david lawrence thanks that’s right man that’s what i’m saying yeah anyway um so they’re not buying this stuff they’re buying you or the conception of you or the talent that you bring and the skill and the craft and all that and that’s and that’s the only truly the only thing you have you know and that is everything yeah so really great i i really appreciate you taking the time with me today if you were watching this uh have uh uh you know thoughts questions answers attitude uh be kind be gentle uh be respectful but leave your comments below this video and let us know what you think what your fears are what your conclusions are what your questions are and closed circuit to my vo heroes pros uh if you go to the pro connect private mastermind group on voheros.com you’ll find a couple of of postings where i’ve put up uh questions just like i asked at the beginning of this uh at the beginning of this episode and that is listen to this audiobook segment and tell me what these people look like and i can now reveal that those two are artificial intelligence voices from a company called deep zen in the uk and they have gone into emotions and changes and arcs and and even little tiny fluffs you know the imperfections are what make us human and there’s just so much to talk about here i really appreciate your time dr robert pondillo uh my friend for life i love you man uh i i so appreciate everything that you have done throughout my life for me and for all of the students that you’ve taught over the years i really appreciate your wisdom on things like this well thanks man it’s a pleasure it’s a pleasure thank you for watching and we’ll see you in the next episode.
WOW David! I can’t believe those voices I heard in your survey were AI voices! Thanks for the interview with Dr. Pondillo and thank you for working on the behalf of voice actors through the union in this regard.
Good interview, that covered a lot in a short time. I’ve been through similar changes in radio for 30ish years – automation, satellite and voice-tracking replacing a lot of talent, whether they were good or not. Soon (if not already) they will AI the on-air talent and someone will just type a script to a server and it will be on 100 stations this afternoon. Apparently live and local isn’t important to most listeners, or corporate.
I was able to weather many of radio’s those changes because I had decent talent, a drive to keep at it, and was adaptable.
Same thing with voice acting. They will do it better/faster/cheaper with AI because they can. But drive and adaptability is still needed. Which means, as you said, getting better in both what I do as talent and on the business end.
Nice and informative interview David. Much to be seen and digest going forward regarding AI.
An aside, I grew up in the Cleveland area and totally enjoyed Dr. Pondillo’s radio show on WGAR.
(“The Real Bob James”). He also was one of my radio/broadcast teachers at the “Ohio School of Broadcast Technique” back in the late 70’s. Fun to see him after so many years. Class act. Glad you had him on as a guest.
“Music and more! From Canada to Florida…Ohio and the USA loves 1220…WGAR!”
I had no idea they were AI voices. Totally got me. I have to admit, that’s a little concerning.
Fascinating discussion thanks to you and Dr. Pondillo for putting it out.
I can see how this kind of tech for being used for ADR and circumstances such as the example from this Bourdain movie could be legitimate uses so maybe more of a win for moving pictures. what do you think would pose the most interesting problems? AI’s reading audio books or people selling audiobooks where you can chose the narrator from a group of that publisher’s talent? I don’t envy anyone working on behalf of the talent to foresee where this ends up 🙂
The material my daughter receives for remote school appears to be going the way of IVR.Occasionally a human but mostly, and painfully obviously ,a generated voice and I wonder if that exposure will make the improved AI voices less of an issue for future generations. E.G it’s better than what they grew up with. whereas I find it annoying for the same reason:)