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Opinion: Did he really say that?

New York City Mayor Eric Adams has been using artificial intelligence to make robocalls that contort his own voice into several languages he doesn't actually speak, posing new ethical questions about the government's use of the rapidly evolving technology.
Ted Shaffrey
/
AP
New York City Mayor Eric Adams has been using artificial intelligence to make robocalls that contort his own voice into several languages he doesn't actually speak, posing new ethical questions about the government's use of the rapidly evolving technology.

Mayor Eric Adams of New York is in some political "heyse vaser," as he might say in his fluent Artificial Intelligence Yiddish.

The mayor revealed to City Hall reporters this week that his office has been using artificial intelligence software to make robocalls about city hiring events in Yiddish, Mandarin, and other languages he does not speak, which, the mayor freely concedes, is just about any language other than English.

"People stop me on the street all the time and say, 'I didn't know you speak Mandarin, you know?'"

But Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, told the Associated Press, "The mayor is making deep fakes of himself. This is deeply unethical, especially on the taxpayer's dime."

To which Mayor Adams replies, "I've got to run the city, and I have to be able to speak to people in the languages that they understand. ... And so, to all, all I can say is a 'ni hao.' "

Which is not Chinese for Fuggetaboutit!

There is a part of this story which may sound almost innocently hilarious: an American politician uses AI to try to make themselves seem even more of a person of the people, in a great and diverse city where the people speak in hundreds of languages, from Albanian and Bengali to Tagalog and Yiddish.

But there may be a more critical concern for the future.

The Associated Press reports that Spotify already has an AI feature that can translate a podcast into different languages in the voice of the original podcaster. And there's a company called ElevenLabs that says it can convert what it calls "spoken content" — like, say, this very show — into another language, duplicating the voice of the original speaker.

"Heylike drek," as I might be made to say in Yiddish.

I am sure AI companies will insist — won't that just make more information available to more people? And I am dazzled by the thought of entertaining people in Danish. "Dette er Weekendudgaven, jeg er Scott Simon."

However, "Yeah, but I saw..." and "Yeah, but I heard..." have already become claims of credibility in our information-saturated times.

Mayor Adams' voice making robocalls in fluent Mandarin may seem more absurd than harmful. But imagine the real damage that could be done if various operatives begin to use artificial intelligence and deepfake technology to make politicians and public figures seem to say, in voices well-known and familiar to us, things that they never really said in any language?

In fact, can any of us be utterly sure that somewhere online, it's not happening already?

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.