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GIF showing a zoomed in human mouth speaking through a headset microphone

A startup enables people who participate in voice chat to use realistic artificial voices in real time.

What’s new: Massachusetts-based Modulate offers a voice-masking tool to forestall harassment of people, particularly women and trans individuals, whose vocal tone may trigger abuse in online conversations, Wired reported.
How it works: Modulate’s VoiceWear system acts like a generative adversarial network. A Parallel WaveNet model generates a speaker’s words in a synthetic voice. It tries to fool a convolutional neural network, which evaluates whether its output is real or synthesized.

  • VoiceWear was trained on audio samples from hundreds of voice actors who read scripts using a wide range of intonation and emotional affect.
  • Modulate originally conceived it as a way for gamers to play as specific characters. But feedback from the trans community persuaded the company that it also could help a person’s voice match their gender identity.
  • The company has launched two voices, one male and one female, within an app called Animaze, which creates digital avatars for use during video calls or livestreams. It’s working with several game studios to bring VoiceWear to a wider market, CEO Mike Pappas told The Batch.

Behind the news: Other voice-changing systems are available, but most simply shift a voice’s pitch up or down using basic computational techniques, causing it to sound distorted or robotic.

Why it matters: Women, LGBT+ people, and various racial groups online are often targeted for harassment due to the way they sound. The abuse drives many away from popular video games, social media, and other experiences that encourage audio engagement, making such sites less inclusive and hurting their bottom line.

We’re thinking: Enabling people who are at risk of harassment to hide their identity is helpful. But online moderators — human or AI — also need to play an active role in curbing abuse.


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