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Encounters of Al and popular culture in the Global South
As cultural creators in a few Western countries have rapidly paid attention to Al as a new digital tool to produce cultural content, cultural creators in non-Western countries also attempt to adopt Al technologies in their cultural production. Of course, due to the lack of technologies, capital, and manpower, only a handful of non-Western countries are able to utilize Al in tandem with cultural production. Accordingly, Al-supported cultural production in the Global South is not advanced with a few exceptions.
Due to the significance of Korean popular culture, including music (K-pop) and webtoons in the global cultural markets in the early 21st century, I especially explore some Korean cultural sectors as among the most important cultural industries in the Global South to converge Al and popular culture for comparison purposes. Korea has been at the front line in the utilization of the intersection of Al and popular culture. This is understandable because the country has developed both digital technologies, such as broadband, digital games, and smartphones, and popular culture such as the Korean Wave phenomenon—the rapid growth of local cultural industries and the expansion of their exports of cultural content in global cultural markets— exemplifies. The convergence of digital technologies and popular culture in Korea has been indeed noticeable, and therefore, the use of Al in cultural production is an already designated path for the local cultural industries. Cultural creators and companies in Korea have emphasized the growth of Al and big data in their production, distribution, and circulation and have vehemently pursued new opportunities in tandem with AL
A handful of socio-cultural dimensions work in the background of the use of Al in cultural production. In particular, the Korean government—still pursuing its developmental approach, focusing on top-down and direct initiative in the digital economy—has greatly invested in the Al sector.1 Several cultural sectors have attempted to develop cultural content in conjunction with Al technology.
Most of all, in the music sector, several major music entertainment houses have rapidly advanced their adaptation of Al in order to expand their global reach. As is well documented, K-pop has become one of the most significant global phenomena, representing the contemporary Korean Wave (Lie, 2015; Jin, 2016; Yoon and Jin, 2017; Kim, 2018). SM Entertainment (SME), the largest entertainment agency in Korea, for example, partnered with SK Telecom to work to introduce Al technology into K-pop (Murphy, 2019). Soo Man Lee, the founder and CEO of SME, already explained his plan to combine Al and cultural content in 2017. During one event held in July of the same year, he stated, “From now on, SM plans on expanding its business in Asia, and beyond to provide new contents that combine Al technology and celebrity in the future.” In June 2017, SME and ObEN, a full-stack Al company that creates virtual identities, signed an agreement to establish a joint venture, Al Stars Limited (Al Stars). Based in Hong Kong,
Al Stars became the world’s first agency that combines celebrity intellectual property (IP) and Al technology to create entertainment experiences and products. . . . ObEN’s Al technology constructs a person’s virtual voice, image and personality to create a full-stack virtual celebrity that looks, sounds and behaves like its human counterpart.
What SME aims for is to be able to create virtual Al artists via Al Stars and to make new songs and dances through collaborations among AIs. SME also partnered with SK Telecom, Korea’s biggest mobile carrier to use SK Telecom’s Al technology in separating singers’ vocals from music records in January 2019 (Yeo, 2019b).
Another major K-pop entertainment house, YG Entertainment, also started to work with Naver to build a new global music service platform by pooling Naver’s technologies, including Al, resources, and global influence in 2017. Under the partnership, Naver and YG’s affiliate YG Plus works on expanding their music database to include more diverse genres as well as
K-pop tracks. Naver eventually plans to embark on procedures to build a so-called meta database for the music it owns. In other words, it compiles a standardized database that can describe a particular music track, including the title, artist, and genre. Such standardized labels are critical to building stable and optimized music recommendation features for application to a new music service platform (Shon, 2017).
As expected, the Korean game industry has also rapidly invested in AL Korea is the second-largest powerhouse in online gaming and one of the most advanced in mobile gaming. As Yannakakis and Togelius (2018, 151-152) point out, Al has expanded its role in game production. In other words, several in-game components and assets, including levels, maps, game rules, textures, stories, items, music, weapons, vehicles, and characters have been supported by Al in the production stage. One obvious reason to generate content by Al is that it could remove the need to have a human designer creating that content, as humans are expensive and slow.
In the field of digital games, several game companies have developed games supported by AL For example, NCSoft, one of the largest game companies in Korea, has already started to introduce Al into game design and production since 2011 when it created an Al task force, renamed the Al lab in 2012, and then the Al center in 2016. NCSoft has about 100 Al experts, and its two major hubs are the Artificial Intelligence Center, including Game Al Lab, Speech Lab, and Vision Task Force, and Natural Language Processing Center, encompassing Language Al Lab and Knowledge Lab (Oh, D.H., 2018). As Lee Jae-joon, who heads the Al center at NCSoft, said during a media conference held in July 2019, “When creating game characters in the past, game developers had to input each facial expression fitting for lines and situations one by one”; however, “Al helps reduce this kind of repetitive work significantly” (Jun, J.H., 2019b). Other gaming firms like Nexon and Netmarble have also expanded investment in Al to gain a competitive advantage, as people utilize Al in almost the entire process of game development, production, and data analytics.
The latest cultural sector utilizing Al is the webtoon industry. Webtoon— a neologism of web and cartoon, which has been created in Korea in the digital platform era—is one of the nascent cultural genres that fully adapts digital technology and smart media. As people enjoy webtoons on their mobile gadgets—in particular, on smartphones—webtoons rapidly adapt new technologies, including AL Many leading webtoonists have certainly advanced their use of Al in order to develop both digital storytelling and images. For example, Ha Il-Kwon’s Came Across (majuchyeotda), which was released on Naver in 2017, used not only Al, but also augmented reality (AR) and face recognition technology (Jun et al., 2019). Came Across is a webtoon that combines Al, AR, 360-degree panorama, and face recognition technology into the narrative. The analysis applied Chatman’s analysis of narrative structure. Each episode was done on how the narrative develops as the technical characteristics incorporated to the new webtoon combines with the narrative. The technology of Al and AR broke the barriers between the actual world and the imagined world in this particular webtoon (Jun et al., 2019). In the second episode, for example, Al technology changes the customer’s face into the main character of the webtoon. When the customer takes a picture of himself/herself with his/her own smartphone, Al identifies the customer’s face and changes it into the webtoon’s style. Consequently, the customer enjoys the webtoon as if he/she is a main character (Song, B.G., 2018).
As these several cases certainly exemplify, the encounters between Al and popular culture have been growing in both the Global North and the Global South. The cultural industries in several leading countries in the Global North and a few emerging countries in the Global South have utilized the increasing collaborations between cultural firms, including digital platforms or telecommunications companies, who are equipped with Al and popular culture. While this new trend offers great opportunities to cultural creators and digital platforms, this movement is troublesome, because only a few mega giants in a handful of advanced economies are able to create cultural content supported by Al so that they control the majority of the global cultural markets. The following section discusses the critical perspectives of the convergence of Al and culture.