November 29, 2022

The Quest to Save the Most Precious Voices on Earth

“My whole world is the human voice,” says Harry Yeff. And he isn’t just referring to his previous life as a champion beatboxer (alias Reeps One). Yeff is also a digital artist, and he has traveled the world meeting experts and artists who share his obsession. He’s spent the past five years collecting, he explains, the most precious voices on Earth.

The motivation for his project is a simple fact: Every day, voices that could be preserved go extinct—whether that be the call of a critically endangered bird or a digital voice note lost in a phone update. That’s why Yeff and his collaborator Trung Bao created Voice Gems: a project that uses AI to shape iconic and endangered voices into digital gemstones and physical sculptures. These AI-generated gems are not just a random visualization: A voice with a lower resonance will take on a deep blueish quality; a more consistent structure suggests the person was speaking slowly and calmly; children’s voices, with higher resonances, leave behind rainbow-colored gems.

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Yeff has preserved voices from famous figures like Ai Weiwei, Jane Goodall, and Lily Cole. But he also preserves more personal voices. He recounts the story of an audience member who wanted to propose to their partner and approached him after a WIRED event to suggest that Yeff sculpt a gemstone out of the couple’s laughter as a gift to replace the traditional diamond wedding ring. We forget that the digital is part of our history too, Yeff says, and that it is disappearing. Truly, the digital is “ceremonial and spiritual”—an archive of our lives.

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