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The BBC keeps trying to shove AI down people’s throats, and it’s not going over well

Published Mar 28th, 2024 6:30PM EDT
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Image: Tejas Sandhu/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

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There was a time when the BBC commanded near-universal respect, when the government-backed corporation was still synonymous with the highest standards of journalism and broadcast ethics. Compared to the wild and wooly free-for-all of US cable news, the BBC was an august voice of reason and sanity. Which is why it’s so disheartening, to say the least, to watch the broadcaster try every which way it can to shove artificial intelligence down people’s throats, at a time when the technology is still regarded with widespread skepticism by regular people outside of places like Silicon Valley.

Make no mistake: The chorus of boos at SXSW this year in response to videos touting the supposed benefits of AI were not a one-off and were not localized to the festival or even just to the US. In recent weeks, for example, the BBC garnered a wave of condemnation from fans of its long-running sci-fi show Doctor Who when the corporation said its marketing teams would use AI to craft text for promotional emails and mobile notifications related to Doctor Who.

In addition to finding that announcement generally distasteful, fans also pointed to the irony of using generative AI to promote a show that’s all about the triumph of the human spirit and of creativity, and how important it is to be both curious as well as skeptical about technology. “As part of a small trial, marketing teams used generative AI technology to help draft some text for two promotional emails and mobile notifications to highlight Doctor Who programming available on the BBC,” a statement posted to the BBC’s official complaints forum reads.

“We followed all BBC editorial compliance processes, and the final text was verified and signed-off by a member of the marketing team before it was sent. We have no plans to do this again to promote Doctor Who.”

An apparent win, in other words, for everyone who wrote in and complained to the BBC. But the organization is, unfortunately, still at it in other ways.

In now viral social media posts, actress Sara Poyzer explained to her followers that she’d been cut from a BBC show after it was decided to use AI instead of Poyzer herself providing the voice work she’d been hired for (the BBC show isn’t named, so it could be a TV series as well as an audio production of some sort). “Sobering,” Poyzer wrote in a post on X/Twitter that’s garnered 2 million views as of this writing.

The post itself contains an official-looking email snippet which reads: “Sorry for the delay — we have had the approval from BBC to use the AI generated voice so we won’t need Sara anymore.”

Comedian Steve Martin was among the outraged critics weighing in, tweeting: “Most of my income comes from voiceovers. Without it I would have had to pick another career cos of money. This makes me want to explode.”

That outcry put the BBC, once again, on the defensive for using AI instead of human creators. Basically, the organization explained that the production here is about someone who’s approaching death and unable to speak. For whatever reason, it was decided that an AI voice would reflect that person the best, rather than the use of, you know, an actual human.

Here’s the full statement from the BBC in response to this latest brouhaha: “We are making a highly sensitive documentary which features a contributor who is nearing the end of life and is now unable to speak. We have been working closely with their family to explore how we might best represent the contributor’s voice at the end of the film when words they have written are read out. 

“In these very particular circumstances and with the family’s wishes in mind we have agreed to use AI for a brief section to recreate a voice which can now no longer be heard. This will be clearly labelled within the film.”

So there you have it. A once-great British entity is scrambling to defend itself over the decision to use AI for the purpose of representing … (checks notes) … someone’s humanity. I don’t know about you, but I, for one, can’t even begin to respect this as a legitimate exercise until AI is also allowed to replace the jobs of the overpaid C-suite executives at the BBC and elsewhere who think humans are so easy to supplant.

“I think it’s time for British actors and creatives to draw a line in the sand,” Miltos Yerolemou, the actor who played Syrio Forel in Game of Thrones, said in response to the BBC’s move. “Like our American brothers and sisters it’s time to resist this.”

Andy Meek Trending News Editor

Andy Meek is a reporter based in Memphis who has covered media, entertainment, and culture for over 20 years. His work has appeared in outlets including The Guardian, Forbes, and The Financial Times, and he’s written for BGR since 2015. Andy's coverage includes technology and entertainment, and he has a particular interest in all things streaming.

Over the years, he’s interviewed legendary figures in entertainment and tech that range from Stan Lee to John McAfee, Peter Thiel, and Reed Hastings.