March 11, 2021 - 2:30pm

Bart Simpson first appeared on our screens in 1989. And yet he is still a 10-year-old boy.

Cartoon shows get away with their floating timelines because their voice actors age offscreen. That’s why shows like The Simpsons, South Park and Family Guy can keep going for decades — in contrast to even the most popular non-cartoon sitcoms.

Can you imagine the central characters of Friends still sharing a New York apartment into their fifties? Well, yes, given the dynamics of property market — but it wouldn’t be the same show. The residents of Springfield, however, are still in the springtime of their lives.

That said, not even voice actors are immortal. If The Simpsons is to keep going for ever, then its actors will have to be replaced eventually. Of course, it’s easier recasting a cartoon character than a live action role — you just need to find someone who can do the voice. However, before long there could be another option: get a computer to do it instead.

In a fascinating piece for Wired, Amit Katwala explores the implication of using AI deep fake technology to voice cartoon characters. It’s already the case that computer voices sound more like real people than robots — just ask Alexa or Siri. But powered by machine learning, the technology is advancing all the time.

Katwala describes an AI model that can learn to imitate particular voices within a few hours — even if the result is a “little emotionally flat”. However, actorly intonations are ultimately sound patterns too. With the right technology, they can be broken down into their component parts and reassembled in whatever new pattern is required.

One can foresee a future in which human actors are done away with all together, and writers and directors essentially become computer programmers.

Katwala looks into the legal ramifications. For instance, who ultimately owns the intellectual property rights to a voice? But I can foresee an even thornier issue: the politics of race.

The big American cartoon shows are no strangers to racial controversy. In 2020, a string of white actors announced that they’d no longer be voicing non-white characters — such as Apu in The Simpsons, Cleveland in Family Guy and Missy in Big Mouth.

Even if the characterisation is not considered to be demeaning in itself, the emerging consensus is that using a white actor for a non-white cartoon role is depriving non-white actors of work and appropriates non-white identities.

But what happens if the role is taken by a computer instead? That too is depriving non-white actors of work. Would this be OK if enough white actors are replaced too — or would it only be OK if enough of the programmers of the AI system are non-white? Furthermore, would a non-white character voiced by a white actor become more acceptable if a computer were to take over the role?

Rather like The Simpsons, this one will run-and-run.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.