As the United States approaches an election year in 2024, citizens brace for the onslaught of robocalls from political campaigns asking for their vote. What people might not expect, however, is to hear a politician who is not known to be multilingual speaking in a language other than English. It turns out, this type of surprise phone call is the result of AI voice cloning and translation technology, and it’s becoming more common.
Last month, New York City Mayor Eric Adams made headlines when he used AI, including a newly released tool from ElevenLabs, to make calls to constituents in Spanish, Yiddish, Mandarin, Cantonese, and Haitian Creole — despite not speaking any of those languages.
Adams views the AI-modified calls as a way to more effectively reach diverse communities, telling City Hall reporters, “I have to be able to speak to people in the languages that they understand, and I’m happy to do so.” A spokesperson for the mayor’s office said that native speakers listened to the recordings before they went out to ensure the translations were accurate.
But some tech ethics groups feel that the calls were misleading because they didn’t disclose the use of AI. Executive Director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project Albert Fox Cahn told the Associated Press, “The mayor is making deep fakes of himself. This is deeply unethical, especially on the taxpayer’s dime. Using AI to convince New Yorkers that he speaks languages that he doesn’t is outright Orwellian. Yes, we need announcements in all of New Yorkers’ native languages, but the deep fakes are just a creepy vanity project.”
Opinion journalists are also weighing into the debate. NPR’s Scott Simon said on Weekend Edition, “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 deep fake 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?”
Recorded phone calls aren’t the only potential application of AI voice translation in politics; the technology could easily be used in video campaign ads and other types of messages. And with plenty of companies offering similar tools, including Spotify and Google, there’s a good chance Americans will be hearing more politicians say, “Yo apruebo este mensaje.”