Real or Artificial: A Taste of Artificial Intelligence

In 1974, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved for consumer use a substance that many thought would be a blessing upon humanity: an artificial sweetener named aspartame. For diabetics and people watching their weight, aspartame promised to help them manage both. Many were willing—and still are—to stomach the bitter aftertaste in order to enjoy sweetness without the calories of sugar. Still, most would agree that beyond its benefits, aspartame wasn’t quite like the real thing.

There’s always something a little off about things we call “artificial.” When you Google the word, it’s no surprise that the first word to pop up beside it these days is “intelligence.” And like every significant discovery humankind has made since since fire, artificial intelligence has stirred up a lot of discussion lately, causing much brighter minds than mine to wonder, “Does AI hold promise for the future or is the newest plague?” Those discussions have been particularly spirited in the creative community, propelled by fears that we’ll all be replaced by supercomputers writing and designing ads, penning novels and concepting feature films. For some creatives, AI feels like a big pink slip that’s waiting to be handed out.

If you’re still a little vague on what AI is exactly and how it works, definitions aren’t much help. Artificial intelligence is defined as the ability of a computer system to replicate intelligent human behavior. (We assume that nobody’s wasting time trying to get a computer to replicate unintelligent human behavior—of which we seem to have plenty already.) Then there’s “generative” artificial intelligence, a subspecies of artificial intelligence capable of coming up with or “generating” new content—text or images—when prompted by a human supplying a search word. If you’ve played around with ChatGPT, you’ve experienced its ability to generate written content from its vast database that, while not completely human, is at least humanlike. Herein lies my point: artificial intelligence still depends on human intelligence to create the spark that empowers it into action. Without a search word, AI sits dumbly by. And unless you envision a scenario where your computer prevents you from unplugging it as HAL did in 2001: A Space Odyssey, AI cannot fully think on its own—or at least not yet.

Recent consumer reviews of some AI output have been less than flattering. Take the case of Netflix’s quite successful true crime documentary series, What Jennifer Did—a show about Jennifer Pan, the now 37-year-old woman serving time in Canada for cooking up (sorry) a murder-for-hire scheme targeting her parents in 2010. Social media exploded when it appeared that certain photos of Ms. Pan that appeared on the show had been manipulated using AI. The tit-for-tat escalated when author Jeremy Grimaldi, writer of the book on which the series is based, insisted that the photos were authentic, though he admitted that they may have been “enhanced” to improve the image quality. I’m not sure how we draw the line between “enhancing” and “manipulating,” but fans of the show weren’t happy. This was supposed to be a documentary—a true story. Therefore, any manipulation was tantamount to a lie.

AI’s second black eye was received by marketers of A24’s new film Civil War, a movie that speculates what America might become if our current divide devolved into a modern-day civil war. Using AI, the Civil War marketing team created posters with apocalyptic images of five major U.S. cities in various states of destruction or military occupation. On close examination, however, viewers discovered inaccuracies. The poster of an embattled downtown Chicago shows two Marina City Towers on opposite sides of the river when in reality they are both on the same side of the river. Another image shows a charred Miami with a burned out car with not two but three side doors. But the biggest issue was this: none of these images were in the actual movie! It was blatant false advertising, even though Civil War’s creatives tried to defend the images as not literally of the film but “inspired” by it. The backlash on social media was vehement, with one film industry professional blasting A24 for using AI to open a Pandora’s box that nobody wants.

There was one AI effort that received a positive response in the form of a trailer for the next Bond movie. Bond fans have eagerly speculated for months who will replace 007 following the enormously popular Daniel Craig’s retirement from the franchise. When Craig was chosen for Casino Royale in 2006, the creators passed on actor Henry Cavill, a good Bond candidate who was seen at the time as too young. Fast forward to 2024. KH Studio is a creative enterprise which has made its reputation producing AI-assisted trailers for a host of speculative movie sequels including Back to the Future IV, Pirates of the Caribbean 6, and my personal favorite, Titanic 2, with the original love duo Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet emerging from the icy waters of the North Atlantic well preserved but appropriately aged. KH Studio created a Bond movie trailer which pitches Henry Cavill as the new Bond, and also proposes as his costar the lovely Margot Robbie of Barbie fame.

In this case, everybody knew it wasn’t real. And there were also some obvious AI gaffs—like they failed to give Cavill his British accent. But the trailer got viewed 3.5 million times, and despite its flaws, the reviews were overwhelmingly positive. In this case, nobody was bothered by the piece’s speculative nature or that the AI wasn’t perfect. After all, we all know we need a new James Bond! Why not try this one on for size?!

If you’re fearing that AI will take over life as we know it, I’m hoping these examples will reassure you that, as in all marketing, the consumer has the final say. Were the people who called out Netflix and the Civil War posters being hypercritical? I think not. I think that in a media culture where we daily float in a sea of misinformation, sooner later people start screaming for the truth.

I’m looking forward to writing future posts about this topic as AI continues to either unfold or unravel. As to whether it’s the “promise” or the “plague,” the jury is still out.

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