April 02, 2023
The Internet is presently enthralled by an addictive trend. Using artificial intelligence-based image generators, like Midjourney, users on platforms like YouTube, TikTok and Instagram, have reimagined nearly every beloved media franchise as something else in the quest to harvest easy views and cheap likes.
Take a look at the selection of images attached to this article.
Or, just search for [insert name here] as 80s dark fantasy, action film or what have you. We’re not quite there yet – indeed, many results are more miss than hit – but some of the results appear eerily realistic. The faces are unrecognisable of course, but they could almost exist. They evoke a sense of nostalgia, like snippets of any real film or television series from a bygone era.
And yet, there is a dreamlike quality to the images, almost as if they were a glimpse into a parallel dimension. When Phillip K Dick wondered if androids dreamed of electric sheep, did he imagine something like this?
‘A $2 million ad for less than 10 bucks’
One YouTube user, going by the name demonflyingfox, has taken that trend a few steps further. Using an AI voice generator and deepfake technology in conjunction with a tool like Midjourney, the user has refashioned the world of Harry Potter into a memeworthy fake ad for high-fashion brand Balenciaga.
“You are Balenciaga, Harry,” a leather-clad Hagrid tells the eponymous protagonist, reimagined with exaggeratedly high cheekbones. Glimpses of Ron, Hermione, Dobby, Dumbledore, Malfoy and others follow, with animated expressions and cheekbones to match. “What is the difference, Potter, between H&M and Balenciaga,” asks a version of Snape that looks almost like New Wave icon Bryan Ferry. Towards the end, a Christopher Eccleston-esque Voldemort asserts: “There is no good and evil. There is only Balenciaga and those too weak to seek it.”
In comments to entertainment and fashion publication Dazed, demonflyingfox had this to say: “I’m constantly brainstorming which combinations and mash-ups of popular media might work…I quickly realised these have to be as unexpected as possible, but still make sense.”
According to the YouTube creator, Harry’s innocence and naïveté contrasts with an ‘adult, cold-world scenario’. “I already put Harry in the Yakuza world so it was only a matter of time till I’d think of the fashion bubble… and the most memeable company is probably Balenciaga right now.”
In the video’s comments section, one YouTube user remarked: “You just created a 2 million dollar ad for probably less than 10 bucks.” The video has already drawn praise from Twitter and Tesla CEO Elon Musk, even as he joins the chorus of futurists warning against the disruption rapid AI advancement can bring.
A sign of things to come?
To be fair, the ‘Harry Potter by Balenciaga’ video isn’t perfect. The mouths of characters who speak appear to move out of sync and the animated expressions of the rest still reside firmly in the ‘uncanny valley’, a term used for the unsettling feeling people experience when faced with images that appear nearly but not entirely human.
However, what’s remarkable and perhaps startling is that we are at this point already, using AI applications that are open for public use. In form and format, could this video be a glimpse into the future of art and entertainment? While the aforementioned shortcomings do suggest caution against sweeping predictions, game-changing technologies in vogue today were seen by experts as no more than novelties when they first appeared as well.
Take radio – “The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value,” remarked associates of David Sarnoff, inventor of radio broadcasting, in response to his idea for radio in the 1920s. “Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular,” they asked.
In 1926, American radio pioneer Lee DeForest had a similar view about idea of television: “While theoretically and technically television may be feasible, commercially and financially it is an impossibility,” he said.
When commercial television did become viable between the late 1930s and early 1940s, contemporary experts were quick to dismiss it as a fad. “Television will never be a serious competitor for radio because people must sit and keep their eyes glued on a screen; the average American family hasn’t time for it,” the New York Times printed in 1939. As late as 1948, women’s education pioneer Mary Somerville still viewed it as a ‘flash in the pan’.
In 1995, inventor of Ethernet Robert Metcalfe believed the Internet to be a ‘passing fancy’. “The Internet will soon go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 catastrophically collapse,” he is known to have said. Perhaps in a fortunate alternate reality it did.
A vision of the future
There are several possibilities, as refined versions of existing technology become available and ubiquitous. The most conservative would seem to play out the way automated tools have impacted other fields.
To save costs and to create previously impossible or at least difficult to execute sequences, the wider entertainment and media industry would incrementally incorporate emerging technologies in existing work pipeline. Animation and special effects, sound engineering and even acting talent, may be downsized and supplemented by these tools. Deepfake tools have already made it to movie and TV screens, most notably when it comes to de-aging old actors like Robert DeNiro in Martin Scorcese’s The Irishman.
But let’s go off the rails. Streaming platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime and most recently Disney Plus have brought the biggest disruption to the media landscape in recent years. Struggling under the weight of retaining viewership while generating unlimited content, perhaps services like these could start providing or even completely transform into bespoke entertainment generators.
People already wonder and discuss ad nauseum what they would like to see. Take a book you love or a video game or animated series, who hasn’t indulged in a fan-casting exercise. What if you could have an AI create a customised movie or series for you only?
Of course, there would be a licensing minefield to navigate. For instance, maybe a giant like Disney, which has already stonewalled a large chunk of beloved media franchises from other platforms, would make it illegal for any third party AI service from using its intellectual properties.
But perhaps, with the way media habits are evolving, 90-minute movies and multi-episode miniseries would be a niche product anyway. Platforms like YouTube, Instagram and TikTok have shortened the attention spans of audiences worldwide. The meme itself has become the ultimate form of entertainment. So get ready to see more content in the vein of ‘Harry Potter by Balenciaga’.
A world where nothing is real
As mentioned before, futurists like Elon Musk or OpenAI CEO Sam Altman, whose company gave us ChatGPT, have joined a chorus of caution against AI. It is important to reflect as to why.
Conversations about the dark side of AI tend to evoke image of Skynet from the world of the Terminator. But for now at least, the idea that a super intelligent entity with mysterious, even malicious goals, enslaves the human race or drives it to extinction is an overblown concern.
Despite the moniker, current AI tools are closer to information aggregators than intelligent, sentient entities. Maybe that won’t be the case forever, but as things stand, we are still far from a complete understanding of human intelligence, much less replicating it.
The bigger risk arises from our relationship with technology. Consider the case of deepfake tools, which are already being used more for nefarious ends than innocent entertainment. From pornographic clips feature public and private individuals’ likenesses without consent to churning out misinformation, the technology is already in the hands of malicious state and non-state actors. But more than its actual use, the technology has been invoked by as defence by questionable individuals to create doubts about evidence of certain activities or statements.
Entertainment be damned, the AI-generated future is one where the lines between what is real and made up, already blurred in the age of mass media, become impossible to navigate.
Too much faith in AI
The other issue, when it comes to our relationship with technology, emerges from the perception we hold of it. As we rapidly advance and add novel technology to our kit, it is becoming harder for non-experts to keep track of how every new tool works. For AI in particular, only the developers involved have a deeper understanding (one hopes) of how it works.
It could be then that the average person gives too much credit or puts too much faith in AI. Just this week, a man in Belgium was reported to have committed suicide after chatting with an AI chatbot about climate change for days on end. According to statements by his widow, the chatbot encouraged the user to kill himself, raising concerns about whether private AI use ought to be regulated, especially among the emotionally vulnerable.
Less extreme, for now, a segment of ChatGPT users already seems to be developing an infallible view of the application and the AI in general, taking its responses, especially the purportedly ‘jailbroken’ ones, as Gospel truth.
There is a quote attributed to Voltaire, that if God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him. Necessary or not, as traditional belief systems erode, there is a real risk that some may end up believing AI to be a substitute for God. For deeper questions of ethics and morality, we might be on a dangerous path.