Apple has quietly released a series of audiobooks where the narration is entirely generated by Artificial Intelligence — and it sounds surprisingly good.
We all read books during the pandemic, but for some actors, reading them aloud in front of a home microphone was their chief income in lockdowns. Now there's a strong chance that they won't be needed any more, because Apple is replacing them with AI-generated voices.
There's more to audiobook narration than the voice, there is a lot in the recording and then the compression of the audio file. But ultimately, an audiobook must be engaging, and from an initial sampling, Apple's new range sounds unexpectedly good.
As first spotted by The Guardian, Apple Books now has a large selection of novels with AI narration. The newspaper says that Apple had intended to launch the catalog in mid-November 2022, but delayed it.
The Guardian says it specifically delayed the launch because of layoffs at Meta and also the turmoil surrounding Elon Musk's takeover of Twitter. Combined, the publication says there was a dark cloud over the technology sector.
It's likely, then, that Apple expects a backlash from actors and publishers. This is perhaps why the release has, so far, gone without any announcement.
To even find a book that has this feature, users have to search for the phase "AI Narration." When they do, they get a seemingly endless list of chiefly romance novels, each with the same note in the listing.
"This is an Apple Books audiobook narrated by a digital voice based on a human narrator," it says. Users can then preview the book and the voice.
Apple does not explain how the voice is "based on a human narrator," but the preview samples sound much better than if Siri were reading them.
Reportedly, Apple has been approaching publishers over creating partnerships, though initially it was not revealed as the company behind the project. Firms were asked to sign non-disclosure agreements, and told that Apple would pay the production costs.
It's not known which publishers were approached and turned down Apple, but reportedly some did, and The Guardian spoke with ones from Canada.
"The narrator brings a whole new range of art in creating audiobook, and we believe that's a powerful thing," David Caron from a Canadian audiobook publisher, told the newspaper. "They're creating something that is different from the print book, but that adds value as an art form."
"When you have really great writing and really talented narration, you're coming up with something special," continued Caron. "That's worth investing in."
Literary agent Carly Watters says the move is Apple looking to make money and not seeing what makes audiobook narration valuable.
"Companies see the audiobooks market and that there's money to be made," Watters told the newspare. "They want to make content. But that's all it is."
"It's not what customers want to listen to," continued Watters. "There's so much value in the narration and the storytelling."