Pakistan's ex-PM Khan uses AI voice clone to campaign from jail

Published On: December 19, 2023 03:05 PM NPT By: AFP/RSS

ISLAMABAD, Dec 19: Artificial intelligence allowed Pakistan's ex-prime minister Imran Khan to campaign from behind bars on Monday, with a voice clone of the opposition leader giving an impassioned speech on his behalf.

Khan has been locked up since August and is being tried for leaking classified documents, allegations he says have been trumped up to stop him contesting general elections due in February.

But his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party used artificial intelligence to make a four-minute message from the 71-year-old, headlining a "virtual rally" hosted on social media overnight Sunday into Monday despite internet disruptions which monitor NetBlocks said were consistent with previous attempts to censor Khan.

PTI said Khan 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 Khan 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."

The audio was broadcast at the end of a five-hour live-stream of speeches by PTI supporters on Facebook, X and YouTube, and was overlaid with historic footage of Khan and still images.

It was bookended with genuine video clips from the onetime cricket star's former speeches according to 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 Pakistan 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."

- Skirting censorship -

State censors banned Khan from airwaves earlier this year after his brief arrest in May sparked riots.

Global network monitor NetBlocks said social media was restricted for seven hours starting late Sunday in an incident "consistent with previous instances of internet censorship" targeting Khan.

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."

"Frankly, nothing can replace a real rally and a real speech."

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."

Analysts have long warned bad actors may use artificial intelligence to impersonate leaders and sow disinformation, but far less has been said on how the technology may be used to skirt state suppression.

Hugely-popular Khan was ousted last year after falling out with Pakistan's military leaders, who analysts agree influenced his rise to power in 2018.

In the aftermath he led an unprecedented campaign of defiance, accusing top brass of conspiring with the United States to eject him and saying senior officers plotted an assassination attempt which wounded him.

After supporters rioted over his May arrest, PTI has been targeted by a huge crackdown by the military establishment which has directly ruled Pakistan for more than half its history.

Pakistan's election commission confirmed on Friday that elections will be held on February 8.

Whilst behind bars Khan was replaced as the leader of PTI but he remains the figurehead of the party.

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