Text from the ChatGPT page of the OpenAI website. (Richard Drew/Associated Press)
For every problem you can think of, there’s someone out there with a solution that involves artificial intelligence. AI could help solve problems as intractable as climate change and unsafe working conditions, promise the technology’s most zealous accelerators.
It might even fix the much-maligned Game of Thrones finale, if you believe one of the industry’s most powerful advocates and a keynote speaker at this month’s South by Southwest conference.
“Imagine being able to ask your AI to make a new ending that takes a different path,” said Greg Brockman, president and co-founder of OpenAI, the research group behind conversational software ChatGPT and imaging engine DALL-E. “Maybe even put yourself in there as a main character or something for interactive experiences.”
Rewriting an HBO show so that its digital counterpart can slay dragons might seem a little frivolous for a technology as hyped as artificial intelligence. But it’s an application that’s garnering a lot of attention, including at South by Southwest (or SXSW), the annual technology and culture fair that overwhelmed Austin, Texas last week with movie nerds, celebrities and venture capitalists.
Throughout the conference, attendees envisioned what chatbots, deepfakes, and content-generating software will mean for the creative industries.
On a live podcast recording titled “Generative AI: Oh God What Now?” Two technologists reflected on how many creativity-driven jobs are being taken over by machines. In a Shark Tank-esque pitch session, entrepreneurs proposed new ways to bring AI into entertainment, such as sharing audio stems or automatically visualizing movie scripts. A SoundCloud exec told another audience that people who categorically reject AI-generated music sound “a bit like the synthesizer haters” of the early days of electronic music.
And it’s not just SXSW attendees and speakers who are excited about the space. According to market research firm PitchBook, venture capitalists have signed 845 AI-related deals totaling $7.1 billion so far this year, despite an otherwise weak tech market.
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In Los Angeles, home to the entertainment industry and a growing technology sector, companies are already trying to bring artificial intelligence into the Hollywood production cycle. Santa Monica-based company Flawless has focused on using deepfake-style tools to edit the actors’ mouth movements and facial expressions after filming is complete. Playa Vista’s Digital Domain uses the technology to perform stunts.
“AI could be an amazing tool to democratize many aspects of filmmaking,” said Tye Sheridan, an actor who has starred in films like Ready Player One and the rebooted X-Men series. “You don’t need a lot of people or equipment or complicated software with expensive licenses; I think you really open the door to a lot of opportunities for artists.”
Along with VFX artist Nikola Todorovic, Sheridan founded Wonder Dynamics, a West Hollywood-based company focused on using AI to simplify motion capture.
In a demo Sheridan and Todorovic showed The Times in front of their own SXSW panel, the software captured an early scene from the James Bond film “Spectre” – of Daniel Craig dramatically walking across a rooftop in Mexico City – and scrubbed out the actor to replace him with a moving, gesticulating CGI character. The advantages are obvious for Sheridan.
“I mean, you don’t have to wear those silly looking motion capture outfits anymore, do you?” Sheridan said.
But for all the hype, some remain skeptical, wondering how much of the excitement is due to venture-capital-fuelled froth.
Just a year ago at SXSW 2022, technologists seemed all about crypto. But before long, crypto values plummeted, regulators cracked down, and industry mainstays imploded. Even the Metaverse — the other “next big thing” Silicon Valley has been buzzing about in recent years — has so far proved unconvincing.
It doesn’t help that the tech-entertainment space has its own lane of unfulfilled promises. Do you remember 360 virtual reality movies? Do you remember 3D TVs?
The rise of AI in writing has also raised concerns from unions representing screenwriters, who fear studios may be replacing experienced television and film writers with software. This year, the Writers Guild of America will require studios to regulate the use of material produced by artificial intelligence and similar technologies as part of negotiations for a new compensation deal later this year.
“We’ve been through various hype cycles, not just with AI, but with other types of technological innovation,” said David Gunkel, a media studies professor at Northern Illinois University who focuses on the ethics of new technologies. “So it’s wise to always be careful how much you make predictions about radical change, because in some cases that doesn’t happen.”
Even if the general AI hype is justified, what impact this fast-growing field will have specifically on the entertainment industry is a thornier question, in part because it raises questions about creativity, originality, and artistic providence that don’t arise when a program creates, for example, an interview transcript or a dinner reservation.
The standard of true artificial creativity has not yet been reached by entertainment-oriented AI, said Teresa Amabile, a professor at Harvard Business School. Noting Alan Alda’s recent efforts to have ChatGPT write a new scene of “M*A*S*H,” Amabile noted via email that the software required significant input from Alda and even then produced dialogue that alternated were incoherent or unfunny.
“That doesn’t mean that AI will never be able to produce a really funny script for a sitcom or a masterfully moving score,” she said. “But it has to be a different kind of AI. We’re not there yet and I don’t think we will be any time soon. In my opinion, anyone who claims to know when and how this will happen is either delusional or wishful thinking.”
But the potential impact of artificial intelligence seems hard to deny. Generative programs like DALL-E and ChatGPT have exploded into the mainstream in a matter of months, filling social media feeds with machine-generated images and interviews that many PR reps would envy their human clients.
AI also doesn’t require users to set up a complicated crypto wallet or buy an expensive VR headset to understand the appeal, and the technology is quickly being integrated into search engines and social media apps.
“Crypto and [the] Metaverse were two big trends that I think Silicon Valley and the tech industry were hoping for big waves in,” said Jonah Peretti, BuzzFeed Chief Executive, on the SXSW stage. His company has started incorporating artificial intelligence into its personality tests. “I think AI is just a much, much better wave in the sense that it creates so many more useful things.”
“Don’t you think… we’re just wallowing in these false trends until rates go up?” asked his interviewer, former New York Times columnist Ben Smith.
No, Peretti said, this isn’t another bubble meant to burst. The rise of AI is more like that of mobile phones or social media: “massive trends that have transformed the economy, society and culture.”
Amy Webb, chief executive of consultancy Future Today Institute, is broadly optimistic about the transformative potential of AI. In a just-released trend report from her firm, AI was the only one of 10 technology industries whose projected impact was colored lime green – ie, immediately relevant – for every industry they tracked, including entertainment.
Webb envisions a world where artificial intelligence programs are used to mass-produce many different versions of a single TV pilot, either to test them before release or to show different versions to different viewers afterwards.
“I bet at some point in the next few years there’s going to be this horrible industry practice where you have to have multiple variations before things get the green light,” Webb said in an interview. “And then there’s something like a predictive algorithm that tries to determine which version has the highest likelihood of generating the most revenue [money].”
As promising as AI is — and as eager as many SXSW panelists were to announce its all-encompassing arrival — some industry insiders warn against expecting too much too soon from the technology.
Many of the AI tools that have hit the mainstream in recent months look good on a Twitter feed but may not stand up to scrutiny, said Todorovic, the VFX artist turned AI entrepreneur. “Some of these things you just think, ‘Oh, I’ll just type this, I’ll create the whole movie’ — I think it’s more like you have a concept of it and you can start working on it.”
“It’s a bit of a hype,” he added, “to think you’re just going to replace all these artists.”
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.