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Al and the production of popular culture
Al and popular culture encountering one another is not new. From film to music to Korean webtoons, cultural creators and corporations have rapidly adopted Al to produce their new cultural content. When PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC, 2018, 19) analyzed more than 150 emerging technologies to pinpoint the most essential ones, it argued that every organization, in both entertainment and media and beyond, must consider formulating its tech strategy, and it claims that Al will dominate. It therefore predicts that “Al will have a pervasive impact on all types of companies involved in entertainment and media and will become the industry’s new battleground.” The Electronics and Telecommunications Research Institute (ETRI) of Korea also published a report titled “2020 Al Seven Trend: Beyond Perception” in December 2019, and one of the major trends that ETRI predicts is the use of Al in cultural creation, in novel, painting, and film, which means that Al becomes an indispensable component in the realm of culture. The impacts of Al in cultural creations will be many and highly diverse. For example, Netflix’s recommendation algorithm is one prominent example of how Al builds consumer engagement and satisfaction. What PwC and ETRI focus on is, however, production. They forecast that over the next few years, more and more digital platforms, telecommunications companies, and broadcasters will work together to launch voice-controlled
Al assistant interfaces for their pay-TV and smart home products and services (PricewaterhouseCoopers, 2018). What is interesting is that “the true pioneer in Al and automation has been culture, rather than science” (Kulesz, 2018a, 3), which means that media and cultural industries have no choice but to utilize Al in the production of culture.
To historicize the nexus of Al and culture, the term “robot” in the sense of a humanoid device appeared for the first time in the satirical stage play R.U.R. (1921), by Czech playwright Karel Capek. (R.U.R. stands for “Rosu-movi Umeli Roboti”, literally Rossum’s Artificial Robots.) The drama is set in a factory located on an island that is manufacturing synthetic humanoids. This is the text where the word “robot” was coined (“robota” is Czech for forced labor or drudgery) (Roberts, 2006). “The set-up is almost too evidently that of a hypostatized mind/body or masters/workers binary. The robots have been manufactured to free humanity from the drudgery of labor, but have therefore become an oppressed underclass themselves” (Roberts, 2006,243-244).
As such, it was also almost 100 years ago when “an Al first appeared on the silver screen, and the technology’s prevalence has only grown since then” (Tomlinson, 2018). Al was not formed as its own official discipline until the mid-1950s; however, Al first appeared in the movie Metropolis in 1927 about a dystopian near-future society in which technology helped the gulf between the rich and the poor to grow, which has inspired other movies in this genre. Several movies in the early 21st century, including I, Robot (2004), WALL-E (2008), Morgan (2016), Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017), and Blade Runner 2049 (2017) certainly portrayed Al as well. The interaction between Al and popular culture has continued to grow, as humans have been dreaming about the possibilities of Al for far longer.
The convergence of Al and culture in the production of culture has been common in the late 2010s and the early 2020s. When Culture Machine (2019)—an international open-access journal of culture and theory starting in 1999—issued a call for papers with the theme of “Machine Intelligences in Context: Beyond the Technological Sublime” in December 2019, the editors of the special issue, Peter Jakobsson, Anne Kaun, and Fredrik Stiernstedt clearly understood that “the supposed blessings that Al may bestow upon datafied societies” are now well-known to the cultural creators and to the general public. As they explained, “Representatives from the tech sector and the world of politics claim that the Fourth Industrial Revolution will be powered by Al and that Al will eventually become ubiquitous within politics, industry, culture and in everyday life.”
There are several significant cultural products showing the increasing role of Al in the production of popular culture. Creativity may be the ultimate moonshot for Al, and Al has already helped write pop ballads, mimicked the styles of great painters, and informed creative decisions in filmmaking (IBM, n.d.). Our contemporary cultural sector has been advancing into a new age of Al, and the adoption of Al in the production of culture is expected to soar. This does not mean that all cultural creators, including filmmakers and
Al and cultural production 57 musicians, adopted AI technology in their cultural work, as only a selected number of cultural industries companies and cultural creators are able to utilize Al due to several limitations, such as money, technique, and knowhow. The use of Al in the production of popular culture also varies within different cultural forms, from music to film.
Most of all, digital technologies, including Al, have transformed the cultural scene profoundly. New forms of creation, production, distribution, and access have revolutionized entire cultural industries, such as music and film, in a process that has affected both the Global North and South (UNESCO, 2016). As Al is directly connected to the growth of computers, it is especially natural for digital game companies to utilize Al to create and play games, which means that Al and digital games have had a long history together (Yannakakis and Togelius, 2018). Employing more Al practitioners than any other, the digital game industry is enjoying a screaming success. Al’s role in this success of digital games is critical; “its use is essential to producing the needed intelligent behavior on the part of the virtual characters who populate the games” (Franklin, 2014, 24). One of the exemplary cases is Pokémon GO, which quickly became a global phenomenon when the game was released in July 2016. Ever since, many people on the planet have enjoyed this new augmented reality (AR) mobile game where players capture pocket monsters using a GPS map on their smartphone and their phone’s built-in camera. Pokémon GO allows players to scour the real world for characters, including the yellow monster Pikachu, the franchise’s mascot (Mochizuki, 2016). While Pokémon GO itself was not much supported by Al, Niantic— the maker of Pokémon GO, now owned by Google—is reportedly using input from players along with some software-side Al to begin creating AR maps of the real world;
The basic procedure for the capture is as follows; players use Pokémon GO’s AR mode to catch Pokemon against a backdrop of the real world around them, and their smartphones’ cameras capture that world. Niantic’s software interprets what the user’s smartphone camera is seeing in order to parse real-world objects and landmarks, then maps out their geometry and dimensions in relation to the space around them. It’s possible that previous data on known landmarks could be used to enhance this processing. In any case, once an area has been sufficiently well-captured by multiple players and examined multiple times by Niantic’s Al, there is enough data on that space and the things in it to tell what’s fixed to the landscape, what comes and goes, and who the living creatures are, allowing Niantic to develop an AR experience around those factors [regardless of privacy issues].
This example shows that the growing use of Al has been visible in the media and cultural industries. As briefly discussed in Chapter 1, Al “seems to be suited to the specific requirements of the creative industries that is currently profoundly changing prevailing paradigms” (Caramiaux et al., 2019, 6). In several fields of popular culture, cultural creators, such as producers, directors, and designers have used Al to drastically enhance the experience of playing and watching, “resulting in increased popularity and soaring profits” (Klinenberg and Benzecry, 2005, 9).
After analyzing the convergence of Al and photography, Manovich (2018, 12-14) especially points out, Al plays a pivotal role in culture, increasingly influencing our cultural choices, behaviors, and imaginations. For example,
It is used to recommend photos, videos, music, and other media. Al is also used to suggest people we should follow on social networks, to automatically beautify selfies and edit user photos to fit the norms of good photography, and to generate and control characters in computer games.
Cultural use of Al goes beyond photography, as this new kind of trend includes music recommendations in Spotify, iTunes, and other music services that automatically edit a user’s raw video to create short films in a range of styles and the creation of new fashion items and styles as Amazon already plans and actualizes (Shah, 2017). Al provides people options to automate their aesthetic choices (via recommendation engines). It assists in certain areas of production. In the near future, “it will play a larger part in professional cultural production. Its use of helping to design fashion items, logos, music, TV commercials, and works in other areas of culture is already growing” (Manovich, 2018, 159). It is logical to think that
any area of cultural production which either follows explicit rules or has systematic patterns can be in principle automated. Thus, many commercial cultural areas such as TV dramas, romance novels, professional photography, music video, news stories, website and graphic design, and residential architecture are suitable for automation. For example, we can teach computers to write TV drama scripts, do food photography, or compose news stories in many genres (so far, Al systems are only used to automatically compose sports and business stories).
(Manovich, 2018, 173)
The encounters of Al with popular culture are increasing. In the future, it will not be dicey to claim that almost all cultural products, from literature to audio-visual culture, can be created or at least touched by AL
Al, as with several previous digital technologies, creates both opportunities and threats for major media corporations and consumers. As usual, only a handful of digital platforms are able to develop and control the Al-driven cultural market and increase their presence in the cultural industries. Again,
Al and cultural production 59 they have heavily invested in developing synergistic relationships between their various media holdings, integrating their production processes into convergence systems that yield content for different outlets, cross-promoting programs in different media, and establishing lines of vertical and horizontal integration in the cultural industries (Klinenberg, 2000; cited in Klinenberg and Benzecry, 2005, 8-9). The adoption of Al in cultural production is more complicated than expected. Both the Global North and the Global South have advanced cultural production, regardless of some tangible gaps due to their level of knowledge, know-how, techniques, capital, and manpower. Here I discuss the production of cultural content in several major cultural areas, both in the Global North and Global South, to demonstrate the role of Al in cultural industries around the globe.