Ex-PM Imran uses AI voice clone to campaign from jail in virtual PTI rally

Published December 18, 2023
A photo of an AI-generated image of PTI chief Imran Khan from a virtual party rally on Sunday. — PTI YouTube
A photo of an AI-generated image of PTI chief Imran Khan from a virtual party rally on Sunday. — PTI YouTube

Artificial intelligence allowed former prime minister Imran Khan to campaign from behind bars with a voice clone of his giving an impassioned speech on his behalf during a virtual PTI rally.

Imran has been in jail since August. He is being tried for leaking classified documents, allegations he says have been trumped up to stop him from contesting general elections due on February 8.

But the PTI used artificial intelligence to make a four-minute message from the 71-year-old, headlining a “virtual rally” hosted on social media overnight on Sunday into Monday despite internet disruptions.

The PTI said Imran sent a shorthand script through lawyers which was fleshed out into his rhetorical lingo.

The text was then dubbed into audio using a tool from AI firm ElevenLabs, which boasts the ability to create a “voice clone” from existing speech samples.

“My fellow Pakistanis, I would first like to praise the social media team for this historic attempt,” the voice mimicking Imran said.

“Maybe you all are wondering how I am doing in jail,” the stilted voice adds. “Today, my determination for real freedom is very strong.

“Our party is not allowed to hold public rallies,” Imran said in the clip, urging supporters to turn out in large numbers during the general elections. “Our people are being kidnapped and their families are being harassed,” he said.

The audio was broadcast at the end of a five-hour live stream of speeches by PTI supporters on Facebook, X (formerly Twitter) and YouTube, and was overlaid with historic footage of the former prime minister and still images.

It was bookended with genuine video clips from the former cricketer’s previous speeches according to the PTI, but a caption appeared at intervals flagging it as the “AI voice of Imran Khan based on his notes”.

“This was a no-brainer for us when Imran Khan is no longer there to actually meet at a political rally,” said US-based PTI social media chief Jibran Ilyas. “It was to get over the suppression.”

PTI was the first political party in the country to widely harness the potential of social media, using apps to target younger audiences who carried them to power five years ago.

“We wanted to get in election mode,” Ilyas told AFP. “No PTI political rally is complete without Imran Khan.”

Global network monitor NetBlocks said social media was restricted for seven hours starting late on Sunday in an incident “consistent with previous instances of internet censorship” targeting the PTI chief.

The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority said the interruptions were being investigated but that internet accessibility overall appeared to be normal.

Caretaker Information Minister Murtaza Solangi said the query on internet disruptions could be referred to the telecom regulator or the information ministry, saying, “I have no information about it.”

He, however, didn’t respond to whether it was a violation of free speech and assembly mandated by election laws for a free and fair voting, which in this case could be a pre-poll rigging.

Nonetheless, the virtual rally was viewed by more than 4.5 million people across Facebook, X and YouTube.

“It wasn’t very convincing,” said 38-year-old business manager Syed Muhammad Ashar in the eastern city of Lahore.

“The grammar was strange too. But I will give them marks for trying,” he said. “Frankly, nothing can replace a real rally and a real speech,” he added.

But media worker Hussain Javed Afroze praised the digitally-delivered oration.

“No other party uses technology like PTI does,” the 42-year-old said. “These are new tools, so I think it’s a positive thing to use them,” he said.

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