New York Mayor Makes Robocalls in Different Languages Using AI

    20 October 2023

    New York Mayor Eric Adams has been using artificial intelligence (AI) to make robot phone calls in several languages.

    The technology changes Adam's voice into languages that he does not speak. And it raises new ethical questions about the government's use of AI.

    Adams told reporters about the phone calls, called robocalls, recently. He said they have gone out in languages like Mandarin and Yiddish for city events. They have not included any information that he only speaks English or that the calls were created using AI.

    FILE - New York City Mayor Eric Adams speaks in New York's Times Square during a news conference, Dec. 30, 2022. (AP Photo/Ted Shaffrey, File)
    FILE - New York City Mayor Eric Adams speaks in New York's Times Square during a news conference, Dec. 30, 2022. (AP Photo/Ted Shaffrey, File)

    "People stop me on the street all the time and say, ‘I didn't know you speak Mandarin,'" Adams said. "The robocalls that we're using, we're using different languages to speak directly to the diversity of New Yorkers."

    The calls come as questions arise over how best to use AI ethically and legally. Deepfake videos or audio can make it appear that anyone anywhere is doing anything a person on the other side of a computer screen wants them to do.

    The Surveillance Technology Oversight Project called Adams' robocalls an unethical use of AI that is misleading to the people of New York.

    Albert Fox Cahn is executive director of the organization. He said the calls are very unethical, especially because they are paid for with public money. "Yes, we need announcements in all of New Yorkers' native languages, but the deepfakes are just a creepy vanity project."

    There is a growing use of artificial intelligence and deepfakes, especially in politics and election misinformation. It has led to calls for more rules and policing from the government and major media companies.

    Google was the first big technology company to say it would identify political advertisements that use AI to fake a candidate's voice or actions. Meta does not have a rule specific to the use of AI in political ads. But the company has a policy restricting fake or manipulated audio and imagery used for misinformation.

    A bipartisan bill in the U.S. Senate would ban "materially deceptive" deepfakes relating to federal candidates, with exceptions for parody. This month, two Democratic members of Congress sent a letter to the heads of Meta and X, formerly known as Twitter. The letter shared concerns about AI-created political ads on social media platforms.

    In recent weeks, a number of technology companies have shown off AI tools that can take a person's speech and make it sound as if that person is speaking a different language.

    In September, the music streaming service Spotify introduced an AI feature to translate a recording, or podcast, into several languages in the speaker's voice. More recently, the startup ElevenLabs in October introduced a voice translation tool. The tool can change spoken words to another language while keeping the voice of the speaker.

    A spokesperson for Adams' office said they used the ElevenLabs tool for their robocalls. Native speakers listened to the recordings before they went out to make sure the translations were accurate. Calls have been made in Spanish, Yiddish, Mandarin, Cantonese and Haitian Creole.

    Adams defended himself against ethical questions about his use of artificial intelligence, saying his office is trying to reach New Yorkers through the languages they speak.

    "I got one thing: I've got to run the city, and I have to be able to speak to people in the languages that they understand, and I'm happy to do so," he said.

    I'm Dan Novak.

    Dan Novak adapted this story for VOA Learning English based on reporting by The Associated Press.


    Words in This Story

    mayor — n. an official who is elected to be the head of the government of a city or town

    diversity — n. the quality or state of having many different forms, types, ideas, etc.

    deepfake — n. a real-looking, but untrue, video.

    creepy — adj. causing people to feel nervous and afraid

    vanity — n. the quality of people who have too much pride in their own appearance, abilities, achievements, etc.

    manipulate — v. to move or control with your hands or by using a machine

    deceptive — adj. intended to make someone believe something that is not true

    parody — n. a piece of writing, music, etc., that imitates the style of someone or something else in an amusing way