Your Own Private Hollywood
Across creative disciplines, AI technologies are falling into place today that could lead to major changes in how we consume entertainment, and how we create it — and who gets to.
”The future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed.”
This insight, commonly attributed to science fiction author William Gibson, was frequently quoted by my professors at OCAD University when I was a student in the Strategic Foresight and Innovation program.
Foresight is a method of examining the present to anticipate possible futures, and the first step in a foresight exercise is called “horizon scanning”, wherein you meticulously search culture, industry, policy, science, technology, academia and other areas of society for so-called “weak signals”.
These are little pockets of the future visible today; evidence of small innovations in different areas of society which, combined, may point to evidence of important new trends. Under the right conditions (or “drivers”) these trends may amplify, become prominent, and lead to broad changes in society.
I’m a digital designer, and a generative artist with a particular interest in using code to make art, so I’ve been keeping an eye on The Robots for years now, and one area where I’ve been seeing more and more “signals” is at the intersection of artificial intelligence and creative production.
The trend in AI-assisted creativity is not all that new. For example, years before the pandemic:
- Flipboard was using AI to dynamically layout magazine pages;
- WIX was doing something similar with websites;
- airbnb was turning hand-scribbled wireframes into working front-end user interfaces;
- The people that don’t exist introduced many of us to the “magic” of AI for the first time;
- And Autodesk’s Dreamcatcher AI was cranking out everything from chairs to car chassis.
Since then, compounding gains in AI research continue to produce astonishing results across these creative disciplines and others, like 3D, video and coding.
It’s safe to assume that the entertainment, marketing, and gaming industries will embrace the cost savings offered by AI, so the trend seems likely to continue.
This article is not a proper foresight exercise, but a breezy walk into one possible future. I’m making a lot of assumptions for this article, and I’m focusing primarily on signals emerging in the science and technology sectors.
I’m also setting aside whole rafts of perfectly valid issues, like whether or not AI art constitutes theft; when certain creative professions may be rendered obsolete; or whether the likes of Disney and Universal will be able to maintain their current hegemony.
Let’s take a look at just a few of the building blocks arriving now, and I’m sure you’ll start piecing together this possible future as we go.
This won’t be an exhaustive list of technologies. For that, try the AI Creation Tool MEGA List, read an overview from Ness Labs, or explore the AIxDesign Library. You can also keep up on the latest via the Ben’s Bites newsletter, and the Two-Minute Papers YouTube channel.
As a starting point, the most publicized, contentious and obvious progress in creative AI has centred around the creation of images.
Back in 2016, AI developers blew my mind with tiny 64x64 pixel portraits of non-existent people.
Just a few years later, any one of us can crank out high quality, hyper-realistic faces using consumer-friendly online platforms.
And it’s not just faces, but anything you can dream up, if you can come up with just the exact right text prompt to get the image you want.
Fortunately, natural language research is leading to AI systems that let you simply talk to the AI, like an Art Director might — or a client, for that matter.
In this “duet”, the AI refines the image almost instantaneously as you paint with your words: “Make the red hat blue”, or “What if it was snowing?”
AI image generation technologies are also being woven into commercial design tools and everyday workflows.
Open AI and Shutterstock signed a deal to let users generate stock photography, rather than search for it, and DALL-E has been embedded into Microsoft Designer to let you generate images without even leaving the app.
Text, Voice, Music and More
Solutions like the Contentinator plug-in for Figma aim to provide user interface designers with realistic placeholder text of any kind.
University students have now started using AI to write essays (that pass the plagiarism test), leaving academia scrambling to adapt.
Some fiction writers lean on AI when facing writer’s block, and others actually let it take control of the story to varying extents, begging the question of how we might define authorship going forward. (Learn more in this fantastic long read from The Verge.)
Oh, and GPT-3 just passed the bar exam, despite not having been trained in law specifically.
Words aren’t just being written by AI, but spoken too. We’ve all heard that lady-bot’s stolen voice on TikTok videos, but there are dozens of other AI voice synthesizers out there, like Murf, each with a range of styles and personalities.
The tech is good enough for Hollywood: Actor James Earl Jones has agreed to let Disney take over the role of Darth Vader using AI trained on his voice.
Of course, speaking is easier to fake than singing, but I suspect RealSinger could fool just about any of us.
Speaking of music, Open AI’s Jukebox was already creating cross-genre covers and mashups a few years ago.
I dabble in making music, and rely on one of many AI services to “master” my audio files so they sound professional (well, to my untrained ears).
But these are all relatively static media. The real fun is rich, interactive content.
Animation, 3D, Gaming and Coding
Many AI image-creation tools now boast some form of rudimentary animation features. These often work by “morphing” between two static images using interpolation, or give off a tell-tale, flickery and surreal “Deep Dream” effect.
But more technically-minded creators, like Karen X. Cheng, are experimenting with complex, custom workflows, running video frames through an AI, or combining different systems to peek even farther into the near future.
Sure the workflows are clunky, and the results are a mixed bag, but these are the early days. Runway’s latest version of interpolation is already next-level.
Besides, if you don’t have any images to work with, Google’s new Phenaki engine can create a video from a single text prompt.
Of course, video games are a bigger industry than sports and movies combined, so it’s no surprise that AI research in this sector has been growing exponentially.
Nvidia trained an AI with dash cam footage, and then generated a real-time, interactive driving simulator, resulting in a sort of Grand Theft Auto, auto-magically. That was four years ago. Today, CitySynth claims you can do this on your smart phone.
And Apple’s new GAUDI engine uses a text prompt to generate fully-immersive architectural interiors, with a directable, AI-based camera (“fly up the stairs”).
In terms of gameplay, “trainable AI” is opening up immense potential for new interactive experiences. Researchers at Open AI recently caught their bots improvising, skirting game rules to achieve goals by demonstrating emergent behaviours that they weren’t explicitly coded for.
When these various technologies come together, expect to see video game characters that respond to you with their own improvised speech, emotions and actions, rather than selecting from a small handful of canned responses.
AI is also having an impact on the visual fidelity of games by lowering the requirements for processing power. So-called “neural rendering” can already boost rendering speed up to 5x, without new hardware — meaning that big-budget titles may no longer require big-budget PCs and consoles.
Of course, all interactive media, from websites to games, require programming, but AIs have been moving into that area, as well.
Trained on millions of lines of code, some text-based AI engines have “learned” to program all by themselves, along with the correct syntax and formatting. They can also translate code from one programming language to another.
We’re already at a point where you can describe a game with words and generate a working demo of it, as these Open AI researchers showed a couple of years ago.
Putting It All Together
A video you watch today might contain (say) some characters, some action, a narrator, music — many different creative elements were combined to produce the final viewing experience.
But from a digital media perspective, each of these creative elements is “just” a digital file, containing digital content. And as we’ve seen, we’re fast approach a time where AI can simulate any one of these creative elements.
If we can make it, the bots can fake it.
You could, in theory, use AI to generate a short film today: use GPT-3 to generate the script; use an AI voice synthesizer for the narration audio; generate images of characters and settings; and generate a music soundtrack.
But we’re past theory. Witness this sentimental video clip about aging, created entirely using AI systems. Sure the faces are a little uncanny, and the motion is limited, but just wait a few months.
Heck, the Alamo Drafthouse in San Francisco already held its first AI Film Fest last year, featuring work made with consumer-grade AI tools. Runway is currently accepting submissions for their own AI film festival in 2023.
Alonzo Martinez, one of the lead researchers on Google’s text-to-video Phenaki project, estimates that we’re only about two years away from a TV show or movie generated entirely from scratch using AI. (I think it’s less, but I’ll defer to their expertise!)
The exponential savings in time and labour costs offered by AI practically ensure its future in the production of commercial entertainment. But that’s not the most interesting part of all this.
What’s more exciting is that in a few years, you, dear reader, will be able to summon up a brand new piece of Hollywood-grade, big-budget entertainment of any kind, in any style, whenever you like.
Your Own Private Hollywood
The year is 2026. Joseph is a history teacher who enjoys Hollywood action movies and science-fiction. He’s into pop rock, musicals and sometimes a little opera. Oh, and he has a deep fondness for penguins.
When Joe gets home from work one night, he tells the AI system what he’s in the mood for, waits a few seconds, and sits down to watch a brand new feature film created on the fly, just for him:
Attack of the Space Penguins: An Intergalactic Rock Opera, starring Abraham Lincoln and Lady Gaga.
And if Joe doesn’t like the movie, the system can instantly alter the story, characters, setting, tone and more. Everything will be editable on the fly, from the broadest strokes (“More car chases!”), to the smallest detail (“She needs a birthmark on her left cheek”).
The future of entertainment will be personal, custom, and bespoke generated media.
It’s not just movies: pick a genre or style of video game, dream up a title and short premise, then sit down to an all-new, immersive video game featuring dynamic levels — with smart NPCs that learn your moves and adjust their strategies.
Based on your particular tastes, you’ll be able to generate comics and novels, and music with the drops placed right in the sweet spots thanks to decades of Billboard hit data.
Among the AI trends you’ll find online, it’s these remixes of popular culture that stand out the most to me, and that seem to suggest where we may be headed first.
After all, our post-modern society loves its mashups, memes and fanfics, and it’s simply less effort to mash together a couple of things you know and love than it is to think up something new.
And, since the AIs have already been trained on Western, commercial media, everyone’s favourite pop culture icons are available for use (and abuse)!
Maybe you’d like to try and wrap your mind around an infinite conversation between Werner Herzog and Slavoj Žižek. Good luck!
Funny enough, when I listened in, the two were agreeing that society needs a new invention that can replace “the dying form of cinema” and “dethrone the priests behind the silver screen.”
But beyond the low-hanging fruit of mashups, if you weren’t limited by a knowledge of the tools, access to funding, or simply enough time, what stories would you conjure up to engage with or share?
- A superhero movie about a single black mom…
- A romantic comedy where the less-pretty, comedic sidekick ends up with the hot guy (or gal) for once…
- A survival video game where you’re homeless in a big city…
At a certain point, the ability to consume any media “by request” may become the same process by which you also create any media you want to consume and share.
And this is where this possible future gets the most interesting to me: today’s emerging AI tools hold the promise of democratising the creation of tomorrow’s entertainment.
Made accessible to all, AI-assisted media-making can give a voice to the voiceless, and empower the marginalised to share their stories.
I’ve already noticed a couple of posts online from disabled individuals who are thrilled that AI finally gives them a chance to express their creative ideas.
What if everyone could share their perspective — not as a tweet, but with the full sensory overload of a big-budget blockbuster?
How many untold stories are out there, waiting to find their audience?
None of this may come to pass, of course, but it is a future that I hope to see, if possible. And if we can collectively imagine this world, maybe we can fight for it when the established players try to claw this power back.
For now, the tools of this future continue to grow more powerful and accessible each day.
And it’s happening at time when the major Hollywood studios are as risk-averse as ever, preferring to bank on prequels and sequels of tested franchises.
This timidity leaves room for new stories to emerge and capture the public’s imagination. Frankly, I think it’s time we took the crayons back and started expressing ourselves.