The biggest technology-driven trend that will affect business in the coming years is synthetic media. Yet this phrase is rarely uttered even in boardrooms and Zoom meetings.
It’s time to clarify what synthetic media is and why it will have such a big impact.
Synthetic media is any type of video, image, virtual object, sound or word produced by, or with the help of, artificial intelligence (AI). This category includes deepfake content, text-based AI-generated “art”, virtual content in virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) environments, and other emerging content types.
Many synthetic media tools began as obscure academic research or online toys with limited beta. But it is now on the verge of making a colossal leap in business, marketing, media and, yes, human culture.
How colossal? In the book “Deepfakes: The Coming Infocalypse,” author and synthetic media analyst Nina Schick estimates that approximately 90% of all online content could be synthetic media within four years.
There are very good reasons for that.
Businesses need design, marketing, communication and creativity in general. Synthetic media will drive revolutionary changes in all these spaces, accelerating them and enabling very rapid prototyping, creative content and improved communication and design.
Futurists have pondered for decades whether AI would replace or augment humans in the workforce. Synthetic media represent an important point in the “augment” book, extending human capabilities and offering tools for humans to reach new levels of performance.
You don’t need to hire a spokesperson, mascot or celebrity to act as the face of your brand. Just create your own – or hire a synthetic human.
In fact, this is already happening. Lil Miquela is a fake persona created by a software company in Los Angeles called Brud. The simulated human influencer has 3 million followers on Instagram and has previously done “modeling” work for Calvin Klein. The clothing store PacSun recently “hired”. Lil Miquela as their new model.
And today, synthetic media is already available for free as a substitute for “stock photography” on specialized sites like Lexica and even on industry leader Shutterstock. These services will soon become obsolete, as it will become trivial for marketers to conjure up their own custom “stock photos,” which can match 3D characters in virtual environments.
Why the public misunderstands synthetic media
So far, synthetic media is making headlines mostly around anxiety over abuse of deepfake videos. Deeply fake impersonations of political figures saying things they never said (or of celebrities superimposed on pornographic videos) dominate the headlines.
The use of deepfakes to cast actors — living or dead — in their prime forever is causing concern or glee in Hollywood, depending on whether you’re an actor who might lose his 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 advanced enough, makes it impossible to act. The actor said he would continue to act in films and TV commercials through deepfake technology. (Willis has not, as erroneously 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, courtesy of Willis. 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 surrounding rights and permissions involving the use of synthetic media to imitate real people are essentially non-existent.
Of course, deepfake technology will remain a cybersecurity issue. Deepfake audio is already impersonating CEOs on calls that require the transfer of money. And real-time deepfake video is already being used by fraudulent job candidates to fool hiring managers.
While the story today is that deepfake technology is a threat, the story tomorrow is that it will be a huge boon for businesses. Because what technology takes away, technology also gives.
Companies like Deeptrace and Truepic make tools that can spot synthetic videos, and the fake detection market is just getting started. AI-based writing tools may seem to threaten the future jobs of journalists and copyright holders, but the real threat is that they will become a crutch for business people, weakening our ability to write (and think) the way cursive handwriting has.
Synthetic content will rule the “metaverse”
The world is on the verge of a revolution in different “realities” – virtual, augmented and mixed (VR, AR and MR).
Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta plans a major pivot from old-fashioned social networking to next-generation virtual or mixed reality, which Zuckerberg famously called “the Metaverse.” (Significantly, Apple is expected to enter the augmented reality market next year with its “Reality” line of glasses.)
By definition, AR, VR and MR involve digital content, either existing in a digital world (VR) or superimposed on the real world (AR). Very nearly all of this content comes 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 currently markets this engine as a very fast way for creators to create video content or virtual environments.
Normally, for example, a company producing marketing content would need to hire a production team, pay for post-production work, hire actors, find a location – all of that. But products like Make-A-Video suggest that in the near future, a single ad can make video productions single-handedly in a matter of hours.
In fact, with the future of text-based AI image, video, and object creation, one can easily imagine a VR or AR meeting where concepts, diagrams, data, people, design, and other content are conjured up 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 transform from a huge project involving dozens of people, large budgets, and months of time to a handful of people, small budgets, and hours or days.
So while we stare in awe at the rapid development of AI art services like Stable Diffusion and DreamStudio, we should realize that this technology will soon be perfected, democratized, and widely distributed in a way that will massively disrupt how businesses communicate and visualize everything.
It’s time to start talking about synthetic media, not just as job threats, cybersecurity threats, or online distractions. In reality, the category will completely change the way the business works. And the transition to ubiquitous synthetic media will resemble the transition from mainframes to computers—sophisticated content creation, including virtual content, will become something anyone in an organization can do quickly, easily, and cheaply.
The impact of AI-generated content is about to completely disrupt business. It’s time to get real about synthetic media.
Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.