OpenAI's high-profile run-in with Scarlett Johansson is turning into a sci-fi story to rival the move Her, and now it's taken another turn, with OpenAI sharing documents and an updated blog post suggesting that its 'Sky' chatbot in the ChatGPT app wasn't a deliberate attempt to copy the actress's voice.

OpenAI preemptively pulled its 'Sky' voice option in the ChatGPT app on May 19, just before Scarlett Johansson publicly expressed her “disbelief” at how “eerily similar” it sounded to her own (in a statement shared with NPR). The actress also revealed that OpenAI CEO Sam Altman had previously approached her twice to license her voice for the app, and that she'd declined on both occasions. 

But now OpenAI is on the defensive, sharing documents with The Washington Post suggesting that its casting process for the various voices in the ChatGPT app was kept entirely separate from its reported approaches to Johansson.

The documents, recordings and interviews with people involved in the process suggest that “an actress was hired to create the Sky voice months before Altman contacted Johansson”, according to The Washington Post. 

The agent of the actress chosen for the Sky voice also apparently confirmed that “neither Johansson nor the movie “Her” were ever mentioned by OpenAI” during the process, nor was the actress's natural speaking voice tweaked to sound more like Johansson.

OpenAI's lead for AI model behavior, Joanne Jang, also shared more details with The Washington Post on how the voices were cast. Jang stated that she “kept a tight tent” around the AI voices project and that Altman was “not intimately involved” in the decision-making process, as he was “on his world tour during much of the casting process”.

Clearly, this case is likely to rumble on, but one thing's for sure – we won't be seeing ChatGPT's 'Sky' voice reappear for some time, if at all, despite the vocal protestations and petitions of its many fans.

What happens next?

OpenAI logo on wall

(Image credit: Shutterstock.com / rafapress)

With Johansson now reportedly lawyering up in her battle with OpenAI, the case looks likely to continue for some time.

Interestingly, the case isn't completely without precedent, despite the involvement of new tech. As noted by Mitch Glazier (chief executive of the Recording Industry Association of America), there was a similar case in the 1980s involving Bette Midler and the Ford Motor Company.

After Midler declined Ford's request to use her voice in a series of ads, Ford hired an impersonator instead – which resulted in a legal battle that Midler ultimately won, after a US court found that her voice was distinctive and should be protected against unauthorized use.

OpenAI is now seemingly distancing itself from suggestions that it deliberately did something similar with Johansson in its ChatGPT app, highlighting that its casting process started before Altman's apparent approaches to the actress. 

This all follows an update to OpenAI's blog post, which included a statement from CEO Sam Altman claiming: “The voice of Sky is not Scarlett Johansson's, and it was never intended to resemble hers. We cast the voice actor behind Sky’s voice before any outreach to Ms. Johansson. Out of respect for Ms. Johansson, we have paused using Sky’s voice in our products. We are sorry to Ms. Johansson that we didn’t communicate better.”

But Altman's post on X (formerly Twitter) just before OpenAI's launch of GPT-4o, which simply stated “her”, doesn't help distance the company from suggestions that it was attempting to recreate the famous movie in some form, regardless of how explicit that was in its casting process. 

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