The biggest technology-driven trend to affect business in the coming years is synthetic media. Yet this phrase is rarely even uttered in boardrooms and on Zoom meetings. It’s time to clarify what synthetic media is, and why it’s going to be so impactful.
Synthetic media is any kind of video, pictures, virtual objects, sound or words that is produced by, or with the help of, artificial intelligence (AI). This category includes deepfake content, text-prompted AI-generated “art,” virtual content in virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) environments, and other new content types.
Many synthetic media tools started as obscure academic research or limited-beta online playthings. But it’s now on the brink of making a colossal splash in business, marketing, media and, well, human culture.
How colossal? In the book “Deepfakes: The Coming Infocalypse,” author and synthetic media analyst Nina Schick estimates that some 90 per cent of all online content may be synthetic media within four years.
There are very good reasons for that.
Businesses need design, marketing, communication and creativity, generally. Synthetic media will drive revolutionary changes in all of these spaces, accelerating them and enabling very fast prototyping, creative content and improved communication and design.
Futurists have pondered for decades whether AI would replace or augment people in the workforce. Synthetic media represents a major point in the “augment” ledger, expanding human ability and offering tools for humans to reach new levels of performance.
No need to hire a spokesperson, mascot, or celebrity to serve as the face of your brand. Just create your own — or rent a synthetic human.
In fact, this is already happening. Lil Miquela is a fake person created by a Los Angeles software company called Brud. The simulated human influencer has three million followers on Instagram and previously did "modelling" work for Calvin Klein. The clothing store PacSun recently “hired” Lil Miquela as their new model.
And today synthetic media is already available free as a replacement for “stock photography” at specialised sites like Lexica and even at industry leader Shutterstock. These services will soon be rendered obsolete, as it will become trivial for marketers to conjure their own custom “stock photography,” which can match 3D characters in virtual environments.
Why the public misunderstands synthetic media
So far, synthetic media is making headlines mostly around anxiety about the abuse of deepfake videos. Deepfake impersonations of political figures saying things they never said (or of celebrities superimposed on pornographic videos) dominate the headlines.
The use of deepfake to cast actors — living or dead — in their prime in perpetuity is causing anxiety or glee in Hollywood, depending on whether you’re an actor who might lose their job or a movie studio executive who might be able to make blockbuster movies without paying movie stars.
Actor Bruce Willis has been diagnosed with aphasia, which is a brain condition that, when sufficiently advanced, makes acting impossible. The actor said he would continue to star in movies and TV commercials through deepfake technology. Willis has not, as falsely reported, “sold the rights” to his moving image to the Russian synthetic media company, Deepcake.
Willis’ deepfake has already appeared in a series of Russian telecom ads, with Willis’ permission. But deepfakes of actors like Tom Cruise, Leonardo DiCaprio, and tech titan Elon Musk have been used in ads without their permission.
So far, the laws around rights and permissions involving the use of synthetic media to impersonate real people are essentially non-existent.
Of course, deepfake technology will remain a cybersecurity issue. Deepfake audio is already impersonating CEOs on calls demanding the transfer of funds. And real-time deepfake video is already being used by fraudulent job candidates to fool hiring managers.
Though the story today is that deepfake tech is a threat, the story tomorrow is that it will be a huge boon for business. Because what tech taketh away, tech also giveth.
Companies like Deeptrace and Truepic make tools that can detect synthetic videos, and the market for fake-detection is just getting started. AI-based writing tools may appear to threaten the future jobs of journalists and copyrighters, but the real threat is that they’ll become a crutch for business people, causing our ability to write (and think) to atrophy the way cursive handwriting skills have.
Synthetic content will rule the ‘metaverse’
The world is on the brink of a revolution in various “realities” — virtual, augmented, and mixed (VR, AR and MR).
Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta is planning a grand pivot from old-school social networking to next-generation virtual or mixed reality, which Zuckerberg famously branded “the Metaverse.” Significantly, Apple is expected to enter the augmented reality market next year with its “Reality” line of goggles.
By definition, AR, VR, and MR involve digital content, either existing in a digital world (VR) or superimposed on the real world (AR). Very close to all of this content will come in the form of synthetic media.
In fact, Meta has already introduced a new AI-powered synthetic media engine, called Make-A-Video. As with the new generation of AI-art engines, Make-A-Video uses text prompts to create videos. Meta is currently promoting this engine as a very fast way for creators to create video content or virtual environments.
Normally, a company making, say, marketing content would need to hire a production crew, pay for post-production work, hire actors, find a location — all that. But products like Make-A-Video suggest that, in the near future, a single creative could make video productions alone in a few hours.
In fact, with the future of text-prompted AI image, video and object creation, one can easily imagine a VR or AR meeting where concepts, charts, data, people, designs and other content are conjured on the spot with voice commands, displayed holographically in the meeting for all participants to see.
That’s just one small, hypothetical example of how business media creation will be transformed from a huge project involving dozens of people, big budgets and months of time to a handful of people, tiny budgets and hours or days of time.
So, while we stare in awe at the fast evolution of AI art services like Stable Diffusion and DreamStudio, we should realise that this technology will soon be perfected, democratised, and widely distributed in a way that massively disrupts how businesses communicate and visualise everything.
It’s time to start talking about synthetic media, not just as a job threat, cyber security threat, or online distraction. In reality, the category will totally transform how business operates. And the move to ubiquitous synthetic media will be similar to the move from mainframes to PCs — sophisticated content creation, including virtual content, will become something everyone in an organization can quickly, easily and cheaply do.
The impact of AI-generated content is about to disrupt business totally. It’s time to get real about synthetic media.