Listen to r/Relationships Threads Read by an AI-Generated David Attenborough

Using machine learning models, software developer Garett MacGowan created a channel that auto-uploads Attenborough narrating Reddit threads to YouTube.
August 13, 2020, 2:23pm
David Attenborough during the 2019 IMF/World Bank Spring Meetings April 11, 2019 in Washington, DC. IMF Staff Photograph/Stephen Jaffe​
David Attenborough during the 2019 IMF/World Bank Spring Meetings April 11, 2019 in Washington, DC. IMF Staff Photograph, Stephen Jaffe

"My boyfriend (22m) insists he was 'joking' with me (20f) after he said he had sex with a coworker after driving her home," David Attenborough's voice said, solemnly.

But it's not really Attenborough in this dramatic reading of a r/Relationships post—it's an algorithmically-generated fake version of his voice, uploaded automatically by another algorithm that scraped the subreddit and uploaded it to YouTube. The channel updates with new Reddit posts from r/Relationships and r/AskReddit, narrated with Attenborough's iconic voice.

Redditor and software developer Garett MacGowan created the channel after seeing the growing trend of people making automated YouTube channels with computerized voices from text-to-speech software. Usually, these sound like a robot, but MacGowan wanted to make one sound like a real, living human was reading Reddit aloud.

MacGowan told me he did it by "tying a bunch of open source libraries together in Python," and scraped Reddit's API to provide the text. He explained how it's done in more detail in a video on his own, non-automated channel.

He said he didn't develop the machine learning models for auto-uploading from Reddit to YouTube, or the voice model, but did make tweaks to both in order to make them his own and combine the two. The software generated voice model was created by someone who goes by the screen name "youmebangbang," who curated the datasets of Attenborough's voice and trained a model using architecture and code from Google and Nvidia.

"The training process would involve taking hours of voice clips from various David Attenborough narrated films and annotating each of the words with timestamps," MacGowan said. "You feed this data into the model and it learns what the person sounds like." This is similar to how the Jordan Peterson and Joe Rogan AI-generated voices were made.

"I wanted to show people what is possible with machine learning because it is one of my biggest passions," MacGowan told me. "Things like this can be used in both positive and negative ways. Our best defense against the misuse of these technologies is to educate the public about their existence. It will not be very long until these fakes are indistinguishable to an unaided person."

MacGowan's project is a lighthearted experiment using existing, open-source tools, but it's an example of how YouTube ends up full of automatically-generated content—something that's been harnessed by much bigger groups to post political content in the past. Just yesterday, social media analysis company Graphika released a report showing how an ineffectual pro-Chinese political spam network posted videos using a "poorly automated by a text-to-voice system" to YouTube.

Ben Nimmo, director of investigations at Graphika, told me that there's still a long way to go before this sort of AI-generated content becomes convincingly human. "With technologies like these, there's a danger that they could be misused, but there can be legitimate uses too," Nimmo said. "It's important to think of ways to keep enabling the legitimate uses while making the abusive ones harder—for example, making sure there's transparency around how the voice-over or profile pictures were produced."

A lot of r/Relationships, a subreddit where people post their wildest personal problems for internet strangers to solve or judge, is fake. It's only fitting that the subreddit be narrated by a fake version of the world's most famous wildlife observer, too.