John Legend

John Legend is Leaving Google Assistant, but Custom Voices are Just Getting Warmed Up

John Legend is ending his performance for Google Assistant on March 23. Google will remove the singer’s cameo for its voice assistant on March 23, nearly a year after it debuted.

Legendary Swan Song

Google first announced that John Legend would make an audio appearance on Google Assistant at I/O 2018. It wasn’t until April last year that Google Assistant users could request “Hey Google, talk like a Legend,” and hear the Grammy winner speak. Legend’s responses were a mix of recorded phrases that the voice assistant could play when relevant and new audio generated by Google’s WaveNet technology to simulate his voice. That doesn’t mean Legend’s voice could be used for everything, however. The standard voice is still what a user hears most of the time, with Legend jumping in only on occasion.

Even though Legend couldn’t entirely replace Google Assistant, his cameo set the stage for other celebrities to become the voice of virtual assistants. Google Assistant added the option to hear Insecure creator Issa Rae in October. Like with Legend, her responses are recorded audio, with Google Assistant’s default voices picking up most of the slack. Her voice cameo seems to be here for a while longer but is probably not a permanent option.

In contrast, Amazon worked with Samuel L. Jackson to build a more comprehensive first celebrity voice for the Alexa voice assistant. Using Amazon’s neural text-to-speech (NTTS) technology, Jackson’s audio recordings were used to teach Alexa how to sound like the actor, regardless of the query or response. There are also some individual Easter egg responses. Alexa’s default voice is still necessary for some tasks such as interacting with other voice skills or setting a reminder, but the actor’s voice can do much more than Legend or Rae on Google Assistant. Jackson’s voice skill also comes in both explicit and non-explicit versions.

Easy Audio Simulation

Google and Amazon may be adding new celebrity voices in the future, judging from people’s interest in the concept. The Adobe Analytics Voice Report last year found that a third of the participants would like to have a celebrity voice as an option, with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as the most popular option. Will Smith. Arnold Schwarzenegger, George Clooney, Chris Rock, and Oprah Winfrey made up the rest of the top choices. Amazon has even started offering aid for companies that want a unique voice for their Alexa skills through its Brand Voice feature. KFC Canada’s Alexa skill now speaks in a voice designed to sound like Colonel Sanders, while the National Australia Bank Alexa skill speaks Australian English.

Building custom voices from audio clips is becoming easier and cheaper. VocaliD, which began as a voice prosthesis developer, but now offers synthetic voices for call centers and voice apps. Voice cloning startups like Replica Studios and Resemble AI, which recently debuted a home tool for generating an artificial voice from recorded audio, are also crowding in. There are even specialized options like car AI developer Cerence’s new platform for people to record themselves or someone else to be the voice for the AI in their vehicle. John Legend may be leaving Google Assistant, but custom voices are far from their final encore.


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