Let Anthony Bourdain Rest

There are better ways to use A.I. technology

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 30:  Author/TV personality Anthony Bourdain visits Build to discuss the Balve...
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Documentary Ethics

Filmmaker Morgan Neville is the latest person to refuse to let Anthony Bourdain rest in peace. Neville, the director of the upcoming Bourdain documentary Roadrunner, used AI technology to recreate Bourdain’s voice for three specific quotes that he never spoke aloud.

Neville told the New Yorker’s Helen Rosner that he created an A.I. model of Bourdain’s voice by sending hours of recordings to a software company.

You can hear a sample of the deepfake Bourdain voice in the trailer for the film (at 1:30), when he says “You are successful, and I am successful, and I’m wondering: Are you happy,” which is a line from the one of Bourdain’s private emails.

When Rosner asked Neville about this moment, he told her, “If you watch the film, other than that line you mentioned, you probably don’t know what the other lines are that were spoken by the A.I., and you’re not going to know.”

Many people are angry about this, including Bourdain’s ex-wife Ottavia Bourdain, who said she did not sign off on it despite Neville’s claim that he asked. However, this is probably the future of technology: making dead people say things they never said out loud.

While it feels tactless to use this technology to have Bourdain read his private writings, the train has already left the station. We will only see more A.I. dead people say things, so we might as well have them say things we always wanted to hear.

Kanye West notoriously presented a hologram of the late Robert Kardashian as a birthday present for Kim Kardashian’s birthday/COVID superspreader event. While unnerving, there was something sweet about the sentiment, and there is a world where we use A.I. for good instead of evil.

So here are some recommendations for posi deepfakes in case any scientists are reading:

  • James Dean saying, “Yeah, I had sex with Marlon Brando, and it was great”
  • Aaliyah giving her estate the OK to finally put her music on streaming
  • Alex Trebek singing “O Canada”
  • Tupac declaring that he deserved a better biopic
  • L. Ron Hubbard admitting that he made it all up and that it’s not that deep
  • Brittany Murphy emphatically shouting, “Gay rights!”

Are any of these ethical? Probably not. Neville himself is aware of the gray area he’s operating in with Roadrunner, snarkily telling the New Yorker “We can have a documentary-ethics panel about it later.” But at least these ideas would start some necessary conversations without opening fresh wounds for the subjects’ loved ones.