The Very Human Future of TV in an Age of AI
What is the medium’s power and responsibility to foster our humanity?
By Tim Leberecht
A couple of months ago, I was invited to speak at the Edinburgh TV Festival, as part of the “How to Win the Future” session with futurist Monika Bielskyte and blockchain-for-TV startup founder Ashley Turing, moderated by the Irish comedian and TV show host Dara O’Briain.
I spoke about the need for romanticism in business, which was less of a foreign concept than at other industry events in which I have taken part. Television is a romantic business: Inherently, it’s all about imagining other worlds and creating meaning through powerful storytelling; it’s about adventure, drama, extreme emotions, and human connections.
Disrupted by FAANGs and AI
The industry is nervous, though: Both public broadcasters and increasingly also pay-TV fear that the so-called FAANGs (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Google) might be eating their lunch. In Edinburgh, just before our session, Labor Party leader Jeremy Corbyn even proposed a “journalism tax” for tech companies.
Further, Artificial Intelligence (AI) has arisen as a threat to the very heart of TV—storytelling. While AI is already superior in process automation and data processing, it is now also invading inherently human turf: creativity and emotions. We have already seen AI-composed music, fashion design, journalism, even paintings, poetry, movies, and more. While the results are not convincing yet, the impetus of data-driven “forced reductionism,” to use Joichi Ito’s term, will undoubtedly affect TV as well.
There are two scenarios: We can use AI to enhance human ingenuity and creative expression; or we can use it to end up in a dystopian, uber-algorithmic content farm where we essentially get to consume the data we produce.
Storytellers have seen this looming conflict all along, but their visions have mostly been lopsided toward the dystopian: War of the Worlds, The Matrix, Minority Report, Her, 1984, The Lobster, Ex Machina, Frankenstein, The Truman Show, Westworld, and Black Mirror, to mention just a few. As Monika Bielskyte pointed out in her talk, when we imagine the future, we tend to do it in dystopian terms. She illustrated her point by showing us the Google results for “utopian cities”: Even that term yielded a collection of images that look like Gotham.
There is never going to be a shortage of pessimism or outright cynicism. This is why in this day and age, storytellers have a right and a responsibility to inspire and provoke, not simply to depress their audiences so they turn away. In fact, what should give the TV networks hope is the very fact that they can give us hope and an impetus to make change.
This can start by creating positive narratives for AI, featuring an AI as a warm, friendly, trusted, and perhaps even funny character — a pursuit that novelist and Hollywood consultant Aditi Khorana recently facilitated in a workshop at the House of Beautiful Business conference.
Connecting us with the other
Moreover, TV makers should remember that at its best TV is a shared experience that fosters intimacy and belonging, forms identity and meaning, and strengthens citizenship and diversity. Television is still a powerful medium when it comes to showing us and connecting us with “the other,” and in our fragmented or divided societies this capacity is ever more important.
No wonder diversity and inclusion were critical topics in Edinburgh. The TV industry has powerful means to strengthen it: first of all, it can produce content that shows the full range of humanity, from the local pub in Brighton to a micro-enterprise in Nairobi, different cultures, ethnicities, generations, and identities, especially those that are fluid, non-binary, contradictory. Second, it can feature a diverse cast of characters and create more roles for these identities both on camera and off. “Representation starts both in front of and behind the camera,” Crazy Rich Asians star Awkwafina told Variety in a new interview.
Moreover, stories will become even more powerful in the future as we will have more unstructured time on our hands and may need more of both education on the human condition and a device to escape from it. Storytellers can use AI and Artificial Emotional Intelligence (AEI) to augment, celebrate, and shape their stories.
Here are some ideas for TV makers:
- Co-create stories with AI. AI can compile plot options based on AEI (scanning and analyzing human emotions) and/or the personal input and track record of humans, aggregated data, and predictive analytics. It can thus help crowdsource content and narratives and inspire human participation.
- AI could help personalize VR/AR and other immersive content: AEI, volumetric capture (as used by the award-winning Movie Vestige), AI avatars, or transmedia storytelling can make us feel more and create stronger emotions as well as perhaps even new emotions.
- We humans like to gather. Can the collective, social experience of TV be the ultimate differentiator and humanizer? What’s the Secret Cinema of TV? What does “TV-as-experience” look like? Aside from public viewing or gamification, are there business models such as virtual viewing communities or even co-viewing spaces similar to co-working spaces? Is there room for a “WeView”?
- Make it realer than real. In-the-Real-Life still beats AI, from Twitch to life-streaming (e.g. Ice Poseidon) to the ultimate gamification and reality TV of life.
- Stretch and overcome time: from time-shifting (DVR) to bingewatching (Netflix) to “holotime” (the past, present, and future of characters and viewers intertwined).
- What if TV networks co-monetized with viewers (based on their true data sovereignty)? What if they used AI and Blockchain technology to empower consumers to hold on to their personal data and mediaconsumption data and sell it to advertisers/networks, or give it away to non-profits to enhance social impact storytelling? Can there maybe be a token-based revenue share between networks, talent, and data-sovereign viewers? Is there a market for the Mozilla (“Internet for people, not profit”) of TV (the anti-FAANG, so to speak; see Facebook’s patent to eavesdrop on TV consumption) with the result of more loyal audiences in the long run?
The only way to beat AI is to create stories that AI doesn’t know yet. If we do so, then TV can remind us of what it means to be human.
Only then will we look at the screen and still see … us.
Image source: Secret Cinema