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A.I. voice of Anthony Bourdain in new ‘Roadrunner’ documentary sparks controversy

The use of artificial intelligence to briefly simulate the voice of late chef and author Anthony Bourdain in the new documentary "Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain" has sparked controversy.
The use of artificial intelligence to briefly simulate the voice of late chef and author Anthony Bourdain in the new documentary "Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain" has sparked controversy.Focus Features

A new documentary about Anthony Bourdain has sparked controversy after the director revealed the film uses an artificial intelligence model to simulate the voice of the late chef and media personality reading aloud pieces of his own writing.

In an interview with the New Yorker published Thursday, director Morgan Neville said “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain” used the A.I. technology to reproduce three quotes in Bourdain’s voice. Representatives for the documentary confirmed to Variety that the computer-generated quotes amounted to less than 60 seconds of audio.

To create the model, Neville, who won an Oscar in 2014 for his documentary “20 Feet From Stardom,” sent about a dozen hours of Bourdain’s vocal recordings to an unnamed software company, The New Yorker reported.

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“You probably don’t know what the other lines are that were spoken by the A.I., and you’re not going to know,” Neville said. “We can have a documentary-ethics panel about it later.”

Much of the film is narrated by Bourdain — who died by suicide in 2018 at the age of 61 — using cobbled-together clips from his storied career on television, radio, and podcasts. A veteran chef, Bourdain became a literary sensation when he published “Kitchen Confidential,” a memoir, in 2000. He went on to host the long-running food and travel shows “No Reservations” and “Parts Unknown.”

“Roadrunner” debuts Friday in theaters, will later be available to stream on HBO Max, and will air on CNN.

Neville had defended the choice in an interview with GQ, published Tuesday, saying that he reached out to people who had been close to Bourdain to get their blessing to use the A.I. technology to simulate his voice.

“I checked, you know, with his widow and his literary executor, just to make sure people were cool with that,” Neville said to GQ. “And they were like, Tony would have been cool with that. I wasn’t putting words into his mouth. I was just trying to make them come alive.”

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But Bourdain’s ex-wife, Ottavia Busia-Bourdain, who is featured in the documentary, posted to Twitter Friday that she did not sign off on the controversial move.

Neville seemed to backtrack after the GQ piece was published, telling Variety that he checked with Bourdain’s “estate and literary agent” before moving forward with the A.I. model, calling it “a modern storytelling technique.”

Neville noted that the documentary team “worked with four companies before settling on the best,” GQ reported. There was also the question of determining “the best tone of Tony’s voice: His speaking voice versus his ‘narrator’ voice, which itself changed dramatically ... over the years.”

The ethical issues around recreating Bourdain’s voice using artificial intelligence spurred debate on social media, with many critics decrying it as a morally reprehensible “deepfake” and grappling with the implications of A.I. technology at large.

Others, like documentary filmmaker and journalist Lindsay Beyerstein, pondered why the film didn’t more openly disclose the use of this technology. Helen Rosner, the New Yorker writer who interviewed Neville, commented on Twitter: “Kinda wish I hadn’t written the Bourdain AI thing so that I could write a piece weighing in on the Bourdain AI thing.”

Warning: Explicit language:




Dana Gerber can be reached at dana.gerber@globe.com