Imran Khan deploys AI clone to campaign from behind bars in Pakistan – The Guardian

PTI party uses ‘voice clone’ of imprisoned opposition leader to give impassioned speech in ‘virtual rally’
Artificial intelligence allowed Pakistan’s former 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.
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 on Sunday into Monday despite internet disruptions that monitor NetBlocks said were consistent with previous attempts to censor Khan.
PTI said Khan sent a shorthand script through lawyers that was fleshed out into his rhetorical style. The text was then dubbed into audio using a tool from the 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 the US-based PTI social media chief Jibran Ilyas. “It was to get over the suppression.”
The 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.”
State censors banned Khan from the airwaves earlier this year after his brief arrest in May sparked riots.
NetBlocks said social media was restricted for seven hours starting late on 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 the 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.”
Hussain Javed Afroze, a media worker, 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 that 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.
Khan, a hugely popular figure, 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 US to eject him and saying senior officers plotted an assassination attempt that left him wounded.
After supporters rioted following his May arrest in May, the PTI has been targeted in a huge crackdown by the military establishment, which has directly ruled Pakistan for more than half of its history.
Pakistan’s election commission confirmed on Friday that elections will be held on 8 February.
While behind bars Khan was replaced as the leader of PTI but he remains the figurehead of the party.


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