Synthetic media, or digital content created using artificial intelligence (AI), is on the rise as technologies such as 5G and edge computing provide massive leaps forward in high-speed bandwidth and processing power. In the U.S., we are consuming an increasing amount of media—more than 12 hours per day in 2019, and more than half of that on digital apps and services. We’re no longer just devouring content, we are actively creating it.
While the emerging synthetic media industry offers tremendous opportunities and potential for positive use, there are also ethical concerns — and a significant potential for misuse. From 2019 to 2020, for instance, the number of deep fake videos online increased by 900 percent, and they have had nearly 6 billion views.
To learn more about synthetic media trends, we spoke with some of its most influential women founders about where the industry is, and where it’s headed. We also talked to these industry leaders — from Musiio, Bigthinx, and Auxuman — about gender bias and the impact of the global COVID-19 pandemic.
Synthetic media and gender
I wondered to what extent gender bias affects their work, and all the experts I talked with agreed that inclusivity and diversity are critical in the industry, but not yet the norm.
Hazel Savage is CEO and co-founder of the Singapore-based startup Musiio, a B2B AI company that can “listen” to music and automate workflows. She said it’s common to see a startup with five or 10 employees who are all men of the same nationality because people get comfortable hiring others that look like themselves. It’s important there are women and non-binary people in the business, she explained, because otherwise, “you risk a lack of diversity in the thought process that could translate into the product.”
Chandralika Hazarika is co-founder of Netherlands-based Bigthinx, a deep-tech startup specializing in AI for fashion and retail. She, too, would like to see more women in AI, especially in fashion or retail tech, so that founders can help them prosper, and they can all grow together. She said women applying to work with her don’t always have the necessary background and talent in AI, and that makes her sad. “I think there's a long way to go.”
Hazel recommended a couple of initiatives that support women in AI. One is an all-women founder forum called Alpha, where she is a subscriber and contributor. She also recommended the group Entrepreneurial First, which is where she met her co-founder. While she said she had hoped to find a woman founder there, she found far fewer women as members. She suggested both as great resources to get on the AI path.
Ethics, and is synthetic media good or bad?
AI and ethics seem to go hand-in-hand, and I wanted to know how these AI startup founders think about the topic.
Isabella Winthrop is co-founder of London-based Auxuman, a startup that creates AI-based characters and licenses them for entertainment, branding, or live performances. She laid it on the table, saying there is definitely a dangerous aspect to synthetic media. “Fake media can manipulate people, obviously. It goes without saying that deep fakes could be used for terrible things.” She stressed how careful they need to be in the industry regarding how they influence people and make sure people know what’s fake and what’s not.
Hazel pointed out there are significant differences between industries. “You can play it a little low and loose with music AI,” she said, “which is fun.” She said the worst thing she could say about their AI is it might put the wrong song on a playlist, which doesn't cause much harm. “At our most tedious,” she said, “we're a large data processing company.” On the other hand, she noted, it’s a whole different story for AI in some fields. If the end result is somebody's medical diagnosis or financial risk, she pointed out, it can be quite a high-risk market.
There's been a lot of discussion around whether AI is “good” or “bad,” and our panellists all agreed there’s a lot more education needed, so people don’t think that, as Hazel said, “we unleash a robot that comes and takes over your business.”
Isabella added that it’s misleading when people think AI has self-will. While Chandralika reminded us that AI is not there to take away jobs or replace humans but instead exists to make things faster and easier, so people have more time.
"It’s important there are women and non-binary people in the business, because otherwise, you risk a lack of diversity in the thought process that could translate into the product.” — Hazel Savage, CEO and co-founder, Musiio
How the COVID-19 pandemic impacts synthetic media
Chandralika said conditions during the pandemic have been favourable for Bigthinx, which uses AI to digitize the human body in terms of anatomy, shape, and clothing size from just two photos. The resulting “synthetic human” enables the fashion and retail industry to provide virtual shopping experiences. The avatars can help a business reduce its apparel base and make decisions that improve the supply chain and increase sales. With people being unable to shop in person, Bigthinx has seen the application of its technology increase in almost every sector.
Bigthinx also powered two completely virtual fashion shows for New York Fashion Week in September. It let them use top modelling talent from around the world who couldn’t otherwise walk the runway because of the pandemic.
As for the music business, Hazel said many small labels and independent operators have dropped off the radar, but large providers in the B2B music space are doubling down on using Musiio’s technology, which lets them automatically identify and tag songs to make playlisting and music discovery easier. She points out they are seeing growth during COVID because they are in the digital music space, not in live music.
Regarding live music, Isabella said Auxuman has long been pointing out you don’t need to fly a whole band around the world to play for two minutes. There are new ways for the artist and audience to have the same experience, and without cost to the environment. Auxuman has focused on making non-computer player characters, she said, “but it’s a bit odd to pull these virtual characters out of their environment and put them into the real world when actually, maybe it's more about putting us into the virtual world and having interaction there. Especially now, because we can't go to a concert. So to see a virtual musician, we're going into that space now.” She said Auxuman would make an announcement about that soon, so stay tuned.
Finally, while Bigthinx is working on some very progressive synthetic media projects, their clients and partners are not always as tuned-in because it’s such a new industry. I asked how much of a challenge that is, and Chandralika said it’s been extremely hard. She said if she went to a big luxury brand in February and said, "Trust me, this technology will affect your whole supply chain,” every one of them replied they did not have the budget to go digital.
But COVID had a positive impact in terms of new business growth for Bigthinx, Chandralika said. “If you talk to any brand now, from the smallest to the biggest, they all have a dedicated digital budget. They all value AI right now. There’s been a global change.”