London and Barcelona based audio-as-a-service SaaS startup Aflorithmic has scooped up $1.3 million in seed funding from Crowd Media Holdings, an Australia-based company focused on influencer-based 'social commerce' and marketing.
It's taking a 10% stake in Aflorithmic, per a press release, where it says the strategic investment is aimed at enabling it to offer FaceTime conversations with celebrities through "best-in-class voice cloning technology".
Two year old Aflorithmic may not have chosen a name that trips off the tongue but it's all about speech and audio. It's built a platform that offers fully automated, scalable audio production by using AI-driven synthetic media, ("ethical") voice cloning, and audio mastering -- which can be delivered to people's ears via websites, mobile apps, smart speakers and so on via its APIs.
"Text in beautiful audio out" is its pithy slogan. Prior to the seed round it says it had taken in more than $887k in external capital, including via an oversubscribed pre-seed/FFF/angel round after bootstrapping for the first 10 months.
Sample clips on its website illustrate the personalization element with synthesized (robot-voiced) voice overs greeting a named customer before plunging into the detail of whatever content it's been programmed to deliver.
Some of Aflorithmic's current (proof of concept/pilot) customers are using its tools to create audio books for kids, for personalized narration of wellness/nutrition programs and even a robot butler concierge service for hotel guests. Its business thesis is that demand for audio far outstrips the ability of studio-produced human-spoken voiceovers to deliver.
Hence it reckons synthesized media will be needed to plug the demand gap -- serving up infinite permutations of a voice track, each one personalized to a particular customer of the brand or enterprise. For now it's working on around 10 projects with early beta customers, focused on the edtech, martech and health & fitness sectors.
At the same time, the popularity of podcasts and live-voice streaming shows no sign of abating -- speaking to the staying power of audio in a video-heavy era.
Aflorithmic's new investor, Crowd Media Holdings, has rather more ambitious designs on what its tools can help it do -- and talks about 'completely reshaping the way consumers engage in ecommerce'.
The specific driver for its investment in Aflorithmic (aka AFLR) is a plan to blend synthesized voice with video to let fans engage in "immersive" video chats with simulated versions of their favorite celebrities.
Taking a stake in the audio startup to partner on that project helps it de-risk that plan, it said.
"AFLR brings the audio tech that will replicate a celebrity’s accent, tone and mannerisms as if the celebrity were on the other end of a call," Crowd Media writes, noting that "the actual content" the (future) cloned celebrity will sweetly whisper to your face will be "driven by" its own AI-driven chatbot technology -- based on drawing on a knowledge base of answers built up from responding to more than 180M user-submitted questions ("via text-only mediums").
Turning all that text into soothing synthesized voice is where Aflorithmic comes in. While the video piece of the cloned celebrity plan entails 3D imaging -- with the tech for that being provided by three other synthetic media firms (UK-based Forever Holdings, digital human makers Zoe01 and Uneeq).
More broadly, Crowd Media says it will be integrating Aflorithmic’s technology into other of its social commerce applications, including its AI-driven chatbot (CM8) -- which is targeted at customer service use cases across sectors like marketing, education, and health sectors.
For its part, Aflorithmic says it will be using the new funding for R&D for its API audio-production engine, voice cloning, and talent acquisition.
It offers its API-based audio-as-a-service to a range of customers -- noting use-cases such as "hyper-personalized newsletters and podcasts" and voice cloning for marketing applications.
It also touts a "vast" voice library for customers to choose a robot speaker. But it also lets them record a snippet of their own voice to create personalized audio content through its voice cloning AI.
"Users can compose professional-quality pieces including music and complex audio engineering, then deliver the final product to any device or platform such as websites, mobile apps, or smart speakers -- all without any previous production experience," it writes.
Commenting on the funding in a statement, Timo Kunz, co-founder, and CEO at Aflorithmic, said: “We are excited to learn from Crowd’s experience in empowering companies to reach mass markets, and are pleased to accompany them as they define the future of social commerce. We believe audio creation as we know it is making way for automated, scalable, dynamic audio experiences -- and companies like ours are at the forefront."
"Synthetic audio production has a seemingly endless range of functions -- the potential within marketing applications alone is mindblowing," he added. "Imagine Kim Kardashian being a personal shopper for each of her 200M followers, or Lewis Hamilton explaining why YOU personally need the new Pirelli P Zero Rosso. All of this is just around the corner with our tech."
On the business model he also told us: "We use a SaaS model similar to Twilio or Messagebird. There is a baseline monthly subscription based on usage, i.e audio tracks played. On top of that, we charge a fixed sum for cloning a voice. However, we also offer a free tier. For larger collaborations that have a heavy R&D aspect we will negotiate a custom price."
Alforithmic's other two co-founders are Peadar Coyle and Björn Ühss.
The startup's claim of "ethical" voice cloning points to the challenges inherent for all companies working on commercial tools to power the production of synthesized media.
While a cloned celebrity might just sound like a bit of fun, there is huge potential for misuse and abuse via individual voice cloning -- from phishing scams and identity theft to emotional manipulation and blackmail. Copyright is another consideration.
In an ethics section of its website Alforithmic offers a brief nod to the risks in "making personalized audio scalable". "With great innovation comes great responsibility," it writes, adding: "We are committed to ethical, fair, transparent AI following the UK´s and European Union’s Ethics Guidelines for Trustworthy Artificial Intelligence. All our work and voice models and algorithms are only trained on and with the full compliance and approval of the individual data owner."
Responding to questions about how it prevents misuse of its voice cloning tech, Kunz told TechCrunch: "This is a huge point. We thought about the ethics of synthetic audio very early and security is something we take very seriously and plays a key role in our early discussions with potential customers. We treat voice data like sensitive personal information and with the same care. All customer voices we clone need to give us written consent from the original speaker and we have a close look at how they use it -- especially in the early stages.
"Also, our API infrastructure is securely designed to only allow access to paying customers, who have been onboarded and vetted by our team."
"We purposefully don’t ride the Deep Fake wave," he added. "Not only does it have negative connotations, but it’s also not purposeful use of the technology."
On the competitive front, the startup points to Descript, which raised a $30M round just last month -- and acquired another voice cloning startup, Lyrebird, back in 2019 -- although its tools cover both video and audio vs Alforithmic being more fully focused on automating the entire audio production process.
"Descript is positioning itself more as a creator tool, which is great and they are doing fantastic. However, they don’t cover the full production process from text to speech, over music and sound editing to post-production. We think automating this process is a big deal. Taking audio production to the cloud allows for economies of scale and you can create a different audio track for every listener," said Kunz.
"While Descript focuses on a sort of 'studio' as a 'Photoshop for voice' to make editing easy, we see ourselves more as a 'Stripe for Audio' making it very easy for companies to integrate Audio-As-A-Service into their products through our API instead of 'just editing'.
"If you use health apps like Peloton as an example, this would allow them to create highly personalized workouts very easily. They could bring a hyper-personalized AI Coach into the workout who would help motivate users to give more and feel like there is a personal trainer next to them that offers motivation based on their previous workout data, personal bests etc."
"Regarding video, that was a deliberate choice," he added. "Audio is very personal and getting the nuances right is very complex and hard. We do collaborate with more than one AI video platform though, providing the audio for them because they found out by hard how challenging synthetic audio can be."
This report was updated with additional comment from Alforithmic