People

Microsoft wants to take AI voices everywhere

By adding safeguards, Microsoft wants to ensure deepfake voices aren't being abused.

Duolingo Bea character

Duolingo gave its Bea character its own voice, with a little help from some neural networks.

Image: Duolingo

Get ready for every brand and app to have its own voice: Microsoft started to make its custom neural voice product more widely available to commercial partners Wednesday, allowing companies to generate their own voices for chatbots and other interactive applications. Custom neural voices are based on Microsoft's Azure AI platform, and use neural networks to create voices that don't have a robotic sound, like old-school text-to-speech technology.

The company spotlighted some early high-profile customers:

  • AT&T is using custom neural voice tech to bring Bugs Bunny in its Dallas experience store to life. Customers are greeted by name, and can chat with the Looney Tunes character while exploring the store.
  • Progressive created a voice chatbot for Flo, the omnipresent face of the insurance brand.
  • Duolingo is using custom neural voice to create multilingual voices for a set of characters, meant to bring personality to its language-learning app. Soon, you'll be able to choose whether you'd rather get help with your Japanese lessons from an emo teenager, a video game-loving kiddo who eats too much candy or a speed-talker who thinks she is always right.

To create these voices, Microsoft is asking companies to supply them with speech samples; for AT&T's Bugs Bunny, a voice actor recorded 2,000 phrases and lines. Azure AI then uses two neural networks to turn text into speech that actually pronounces words correctly, and also gets the tone and duration of each and every phoneme right.

Microsoft isn't the first company to use AI for custom voices. Google and Amazon have both generated celebrity voices for their respective assistants in the past, and Amazon recently announced that it would white-label Alexa, complete with custom voices. In October, Toronto-based Resemble AI launched Localize, a service that clones voices to produce translated audio recordings in a number of different languages.

With AI getting better and better at creating voices that are indistinguishable from real recordings, we'll likely also see a whole new wave of deepfake audio. Microsoft, for its part, went out of its way to stress that it is aware of the potential for abuse:

  • The company will limit access to its custom neural voice product to pre-approved partners, who have to contractually agree to a code of conduct.
  • Customers also have to agree to add disclaimers to their applications if consumers could mistake an AI voice for a real person.
  • The company is exploring the use of watermarks to make sure that AI recordings aren't used out of context.
  • Microsoft is also asking voice actors to acknowledge within their recordings that they are knowingly participating in an AI voice project — a safeguard against voice hijacking.

"As creators of this technology, we have an obligation to make sure it's used responsibly," said Azure AI platform VP Eric Boyd. "We're careful with the partners we work with in making sure they follow the guidelines."

A version of this story will appear in this week's Next Up newsletter.

Enterprise

UiPath had a rocky few years. Rob Enslin wants to turn it around.

Protocol caught up with Enslin, named earlier this year as UiPath’s co-CEO, to discuss why he left Google Cloud, the untapped potential of robotic-process automation, and how he plans to lead alongside founder Daniel Dines.

Rob Enslin, UiPath's co-CEO, chats with Protocol about the company's future.

Photo: UiPath

UiPath has had a shaky history.

The company, which helps companies automate business processes, went public in 2021 at a valuation of more than $30 billion, but now the company’s market capitalization is only around $7 billion. To add insult to injury, UiPath laid off 5% of its staff in June and then lowered its full-year guidance for fiscal year 2023 just months later, tanking its stock by 15%.

Keep Reading Show less
Aisha Counts

Aisha Counts (@aishacounts) is a reporter at Protocol covering enterprise software. Formerly, she was a management consultant for EY. She's based in Los Angeles and can be reached at acounts@protocol.com.

Sponsored Content

Great products are built on strong patents

Experts say robust intellectual property protection is essential to ensure the long-term R&D required to innovate and maintain America's technology leadership.

Every great tech product that you rely on each day, from the smartphone in your pocket to your music streaming service and navigational system in the car, shares one important thing: part of its innovative design is protected by intellectual property (IP) laws.

From 5G to artificial intelligence, IP protection offers a powerful incentive for researchers to create ground-breaking products, and governmental leaders say its protection is an essential part of maintaining US technology leadership. To quote Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo: "intellectual property protection is vital for American innovation and entrepreneurship.”

Keep Reading Show less
James Daly
James Daly has a deep knowledge of creating brand voice identity, including understanding various audiences and targeting messaging accordingly. He enjoys commissioning, editing, writing, and business development, particularly in launching new ventures and building passionate audiences. Daly has led teams large and small to multiple awards and quantifiable success through a strategy built on teamwork, passion, fact-checking, intelligence, analytics, and audience growth while meeting budget goals and production deadlines in fast-paced environments. Daly is the Editorial Director of 2030 Media and a contributor at Wired.
Workplace

Figma CPO: We can do more with Adobe

Yuhki Yamashita thinks Figma might tackle video or 3D objects someday.

Figman CPO Yuhki Yamashita told Protocol about Adobe's acquisition of the company.

Photo: Figma

Figma CPO Yuhki Yamashita’s first design gig was at The Harvard Crimson, waiting for writers to file their stories so he could lay them out in Adobe InDesign. Given his interest in computer science, pursuing UX design became the clear move. He worked on Outlook at Microsoft, YouTube at Google, and user experience at Uber, where he was a very early user of Figma. In 2019, he became a VP of product at Figma; this past June, he became CPO.

“Design has been really near and dear to my heart, which is why when this opportunity came along to join Figma and rethink design, it was such an obvious opportunity,” Yamashita said.

Keep Reading Show less
Lizzy Lawrence

Lizzy Lawrence ( @LizzyLaw_) is a reporter at Protocol, covering tools and productivity in the workplace. She's a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, where she studied sociology and international studies. She served as editor in chief of The Michigan Daily, her school's independent newspaper. She's based in D.C., and can be reached at llawrence@protocol.com.

Climate

Microsoft lays out its climate advocacy goals

The tech giant has staked out exactly what kind of policies it will support to decarbonize the world and clean up the grid.

On Sept. 22, Microsoft — seen here, CEO Satya Nadella — published two briefs explaining what new climate policies it will advocate for.

Photo: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The tech industry has no shortage of climate goals, but they’ll be very hard to achieve without the help of sound public policy.

Microsoft published two new briefs on Sept. 22 explaining what policies it will advocate for in the realm of reducing carbon and cleaning up the grid. With policymakers in the U.S. and around the world beginning to weigh more stringent climate policies (or in the U.S.’s case, any serious climate policies at all), the briefs will offer a measuring stick for whether Microsoft is living up to its ideals.

Keep Reading Show less
Brian Kahn

Brian ( @blkahn) is Protocol's climate editor. Previously, he was the managing editor and founding senior writer at Earther, Gizmodo's climate site, where he covered everything from the weather to Big Oil's influence on politics. He also reported for Climate Central and the Wall Street Journal. In the even more distant past, he led sleigh rides to visit a herd of 7,000 elk and boat tours on the deepest lake in the U.S.

Climate

The next generation of refrigerants is on the way

It’s never been cooler to reconsider the substances that keep us cool. Here’s what could replace super-polluting greenhouse gases in refrigerators and air conditioners.

It’s incumbent on refrigeration tech companies to not repeat past mistakes.

Photo: VCG via Getty Images

In a rare display of bipartisan climate action, the Senate ratified the Kigali Amendment last week. The U.S. joins 137 other nations in the global effort to curb the use of hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs. Now the race is on to replace them for climate tech startups and traditional HVAC and refrigeration companies alike.

Most HFCs have a global warming potential (GWP) more than 1,000 times that of carbon dioxide — though some are as much as 14,800 times more potent — which makes reducing them a high priority to protect the climate. The treaty mandates that the U.S. and other industrialized nations decrease their use of HFCs to roughly 15% of 2012 levels by 2036.

Keep Reading Show less
Lisa Martine Jenkins

Lisa Martine Jenkins is a senior reporter at Protocol covering climate. Lisa previously wrote for Morning Consult, Chemical Watch and the Associated Press. Lisa is currently based in Brooklyn, and is originally from the Bay Area. Find her on Twitter ( @l_m_j_) or reach out via email (ljenkins@protocol.com).

Latest Stories
Bulletins