Voice-cloning technology bringing a key Supreme Court moment to 'life'

By AP News


The use of a voice-cloning technology marrying old audio clips to an actor's narration is bringing an historic U.S. Supreme Court decision to life

Education Brown v Board Legacy

NEW YORK (AP) — Seventy years ago on Friday, no one outside of the U.S. Supreme Court building heard it when Chief Justice Earl Warren announced the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision on school desegregation.

Now, through the use of an innovative voice-cloning technology, it is becoming possible for people to “hear” Warren read the decision as he did on May 17, 1954, along with oral arguments by lawyers including a future Supreme Court justice, Thurgood Marshall.

The “Brown Revisited” recreation should be made available by Friday at brown.oyez.org a website that has been the dream of former Northwestern University professor Jerry Goldman. Goldman has painstakingly put together the site allowing people to hear oral arguments in decades worth of Supreme Court cases, and follow along with written transcriptions. Yet it always frustrated Goldman that the court did not begin recording oral arguments until 1955 — a year after the Brown decision was handed down. Print transcripts just aren't the same.

“I could give you the libretto to ‘Madame Butterfly,’" he said. “But would you rather read it, or would you rather sit and listen to the performance?”

The Brown decision was a landmark in the civil rights movement. The court struck down an 1896 decision that institutionalized racial segregation with “separate but equal” schools for Black and white students, ruling that such accommodations were anything but equal.

While the court began recording arguments in 1955, virtually no one heard them until 1969, when they were made available through the National Archives for scholarly and legal research. Full public access wasn't granted until 1993. The court began posting arguments on its website in the 2000s, but usually at a delay of several days.

It wasn't until 2020 that the court regularly made livestreams of the arguments available. Cameras have never been allowed.

A year ago, Goldman said, he attended a play where artificial intelligence was used to recreate a familiar voice, and he wondered if this technology could be put to use for historic court arguments. A Northwestern alum, James Boggs, CEO of the interactive audio firm Spooler, took interest when contacted.

“It’s good to draw attention to this case,” Goldman said, “because it’s fundamental to our understanding to the Constitution and it changed America.”

The first step was to find recordings of the long-dead principals in the case, preferably made around 1954 to approximate what they sounded like then. That wasn't difficult in the cases of Warren, a former governor of California, and Marshall. It was harder for integration opponent John W. Davis, whose lengthy career included the 1924 Democratic presidential nomination. He died in 1955.

A Davis recording was tracked down through the Library of Congress. Recordings for some other participants could not be located.

Through artificial intelligence, these voice samples were melded with those of actors who read the historical transcripts to make it sound like they were speaking anew.

Actual arguments were sprawling — 18 hours over three days, with 38 participants. Goldman whittled things down to a one hour, 45 minute presentation, including Warren's reading of the decision. Goldman consulted written notes left behind by Warren, enabling the recreation to include the chief justice's emphasis that the decision had been unanimous.

The growing ability of technology to recreate voices is a marvel, yet deeply troubling to many who worry it could put false words into familiar mouths — such deepfakes are a particular concern heading into the presidential election.

Ravit Dotan, CEO of TechBetter and an instructor on the ethics of technology, said she's concerned about the practice of cloning people's voices without their consent, although consent isn't possible from people who are no longer alive. She believes “Brown Revisited” sets a bad precedent.

“In the future, I can envision laws that determine how long a person's likeness rights persist after their death, similar to copyright, which expires 70 years after the creator's death,” Dotan said. “But currently, there is no legal guidance, and I worry about people taking advantage of that, exploiting people's likeness or even disseminating disinformation.”

Instead of a deepfake, the Brown project is a “deep true,” Boggs said.

“We are not creating new content,” he said. “These were things that were actually said and we have the historical documentation to prove it.”

Similar recreations have a natural limit. It was only in the late 1800s that sound recordings of voices have been available. Go back further, and they'd essentially be guesses. Who knows what George Washington actually sounded like?

But for the curious, the “Brown Revisited” project offers a new window into history.


David Bauder writes about media for The Associated Press. Follow him at http://twitter.com/dbauder.


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