In the new Anthony Bourdain documentary Roadrunner, Bourdain narrates his own story from beyond the grave, as the film utilizes clips of Bourdain’s voice from television and podcasts.
Some moments in the film, however, contain line readings that were never uttered by Bourdain at all – they are the product of artificial intelligence, trained to mimic Bourdain, having soaked in “about a dozen hours of recordings,” seamlessly blended in with Bourdain’s real narration.
This New Yorker piece highlights a clip of the AI reading one of Bourdain’s emails, sent to a friend, in which he admits to feeling unhappy, despite his overwhelming success and fame. Roadrunner director Morgan Neville has confirmed that there are several AI-generated lines in the film. Neville stated:
“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 AI, and you’re not going to know. We can have a documentary-ethics panel about it later.”
The piece sparked a visceral reaction on Twitter, as users recoiled at the idea of Bourdain’s voice being digitally recreated to narrate his private correspondence to the public.
The Bourdain AI, however, doesn’t cross a new ethical boundary in entertainment; it’s merely the latest example of a deeply unsettling trend. Disney has already dabbled in the dark arts of digital necromancy, having recreated Peter Cushing’s likeness for Rogue One, and awkwardly inserting Carrie Fisher into The Rise of Skywalker after her death.
Holograms of Tupac Shakur and Whitney Houston have “performed” for audiences, while a hologram of Kim Kardashian’s deceased father voiced his enthusiastic approval of Kanye West, at West’s behalf. Even James Dean is making a comeback in Hollywood, decades after his death, with the help of CGI.
What makes the Bourdain story so especially unnerving is the fact that Bourdain died by suicide, as well as Bourdain’s alleged discomfort with his own fame. While the filmmakers allegedly received permission from Bourdain’s estate prior to creating the AI, using it to narrate what sounds like a deeply personal email, as well as speak lines that Bourdain never said, seems like a step too far.
Neville responded to the Twitter backlash, telling Variety:
“There were a few sentences that Tony wrote that he never spoke aloud. With the blessing of his estate and literary agent we used AI technology. It was a modern storytelling technique that I used in a few places where I thought it was important to make Tony’s words come alive.”
With the increasing availability, and persuasiveness, of deepfake technology, expect to see more digital necromancy on the horizon. Despite Twitter backlashes and public discomfort, digitally resurrecting the dead for entertainment and profit seems to be continuing, unchecked.