Picture this: Hollywood unleashes an unknown actress in a film, she becomes an international star, and it dawns on you that this woman is perfection personified.
Therein lies the rub: She is not a person. She is a digital creation of a down-and-out director who has nowhere else to turn but to fantasy.
Such is the plot of the visionary – yet largely forgotten – 2002 film from New Line Cinema called simply, Simone. As it turns out, though, it’s not so simple because this Simone stands for “Simulation One.
To be utterly clear, the movie is actually called, S1mOne, but that would be anything but clear to most moviegoers. Nevertheless, Al Pacino plays director Viktor Taransky, and Canadian model-turned-actress Rachel Roberts plays Simone.
The dramatic tension in the film arises from the thing Taransky doesn’t tell the world, or even his ex-wife studio head, about Simone: That she is not real. To make it work, Taransky uses the cover story that Simone is reclusive, prefers to act alone and have her screen parts digitally inserted into the film by Taransky.
Can we back up a sec?
Left unanswered is exactly how this would work, even in the GGI-crazed world Hollywood.
The point of dredging up a decade-old movie is that right now, in Japan, fiction has become fact. In this case, the digital phenom is a pop singer and not a film star, but that may not be far off, given the popularity of this creation.
The virtual pop star taking Japan by storm is called Aimi Eguchi. She is the latest addition to the popular all-girl band AKB48. But, in 2011, fans of the band were surprised to learn — after a week — that Aimi is not real. She is a computer-generated avatar, made for a commercial touting the band and Japanese technology in general.
And she is made up from features of six of the other 58 girls in the band that is responsible for eight chart-topping hits in Japan. Fans had become suspicious about Aimi before her management revealed she is a digital creation, because she bore such a striking resemblance to some of her band mates.
Aimi has her own web site, and in 2011 stated she was just a normal 16-year-old girl living in a town north of Tokyo and liked sports — especially track and field events. No hint that she is a digital creation.
Like Simone, Aimi is is someone her fans thought was real. The fact that she is still a phenom, after the Wizard’s curtain has been raised revealing her as fake, raised questions about whether “real” matters to fans, or what that term means today, especially to young people.
“She is real,” CNN quoted one avid fan of Aimi. “She exists in our hearts.”
The bottom line, at least to the digital masters of these stars is this: Does reality really matter if consumers are buying it?
Aimi joins Hatsune
Aimi is not the only virtual pop star in Japan. Miku Hatsune is a digital creation who performs on stage in giant hologram form at concerts that attract thousands of adoring fans.
Toronto’s Globe and Mail newspaper, wrote this about Hatsune in a March article:
“She never misses a beat, fluffs a line or messes up a step. But then she doesn’t really exist.
Hatsune Miku is computer generated, based on a voice-synthesizing program developed by the company Crypton Future Media that allows users to create their own music.
Her image was produced by the company, but her music is a creation of her fans, Her best songs – the ones headlined at her concerts – have emerged from more than 20 different people.
The fans know what the fans like.
All 10,000 tickets for the digital diva’s four shows in Tokyo – two on Thursday and two on Friday – sold out in hours despite the $76 ticket price.”
And it’s not just the pink bubble-gum groupies, for whom Miley Cyrus is over the hill, who are chewing up what Hatsune belts out. Again The Globe and Mail notes:
“Hatsune Miku (surnames are reversed in Asia) was projected onto the stage at the shows while thousands of other fans packed into 24 cinemas to watch live.
‘It was absolutely amazing, it’s like my heart is still dancing. I don’t think I’ll be able to sleep,’ 21-year-old Yuya Ofuji said as she came out of a concert.”
The lure of unreality
For those wondering how any teen or young adult could get so worked up over a CGI image who they know exists only in the virtual world, the answers lie in this strange new era we are now exploring.
Even a casual observer of the changes in Hollywood films would notice that virtuality has replaced reality on the screens, and that the biggest films are those that incorporate digital characters.
What began with the benevolent watery creature in the 1989 film, The Abyss, has morphed into standard fare in today’s films like Battleship, Prometheus, and the recent Avatar.
And then there’s Ted
And, for those grown men who find a private solace in still having a teddy bear for a nighttime pal, there is the
upcoming Mark Wahlberg film, Ted, which is about just that. Only this teddy bear has come to life. But hey, don’t they all?
What is working in digital Hollywood has not necessarily worked so well in the music industry, digital as it is as well. In the music world, some purists still exist. Several years ago, for example, critics took a music producer to task for digitally inserting the voices of pop singers to create a couple duet albums with Frank Sinatra.
Return of the king
But that wall seems to be crumbling as well, as witnessed by the recent announcement that Elvis may be returning from the dead, courtesy of Digital Domain Media Group Inc., the CGI studio that developed the visual effects for such films as Tron: Legacy, and Transformers.
That studio has inked a contract with Core Media Group to create and produce a series of virtual Elvis images for a string of different entertainment projects. Included will be Elvis “appearances” in stage shows, films, and TV specials.
As a closet Elvis fan, I have to admit I find this idea entertaining. I saw a concert in Memphis marking the 25th anniversary of the death of the king and loved it. Live members of his backup group accompanied a big-screen audio-visual image of Elvis performing, and you could swear the king had returned.
And that, plus the fact I can’t wait to see Ted, shows where my own dividing line exists between reality and the virtual unknown.
Last week I caught the third and final Jeopardy episode where IBM’s supercomputer “Watson” took on the best of the show’s best contestants – Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter – and pummeled them into bits and bytes.
Fun stuff, but also sobering. It left me with the same uneasy feeling I had after first hearing Johnny Cash sing years ago about rail-splitter John Henry racing the steam-driven, spike-driving machine — and losing.
I’ll always pull for the human over the humanoid.
Experts hailed Watson’s decisive win ($77,147 vs. a paltry $24,000 for Jennings and $21,600 for Rutter) as a technological breakthrough in the race between artificial intelligence and the real deal, and I suppose it was.
Even Jennings, the all-time Jeopardy champ with winnings into the millions, expressed his awe of Watson saying, “I for one welcome our new computer overlords.”
A humbling statement for Jennings and, in a larger vein, for the human race. Will we get to the point where computers can out-think us mere mortals? Will we arrive at a day when computers will not need humans to input data? Can they originate their own?
Could Watson invent a Watson? Pradeep Khosla, dean of engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, says no; at least not yet. Dr. Khosla believes it is the human ability to create that separates us from computers, and that we are not in danger of losing that unique ability to a computer any time soon.
But others say the separation between man and machine exists on other levels, too.
More than creativity
In an article they wrote, Seth Borenstein and Jordan Robertson of the Associated Press note, “Experts in the field say it is more than the spark of creation that separates man from his mechanical spawn. It is the pride creators can take, the empathy we can all have with the winners and losers, and that magical mix of adrenaline, fear and ability that kicks in when our backs are against the wall and we are in survival mode.”
Time Magazine did an interesting cover story in its Feb. 21 edition. Called, “2045: The Year Man Becomes Immortal, writer Lev Grossman quoted experts in saying we are only a few decades from that point where computers will become more intelligent than humans.
35 years and counting
Grossman quotes author/inventor/futurist Raymond Kurzweil in particular, and writes this: “According to his calculations, the end of human civilization as we know it is about 35 years away. Computers are getting faster …Also, (they) are getting faster, faster …. There might conceivably come a moment when they are capable of something comparable to human intelligence. Artificial intelligence.”
And when they hit that point, there is no reason to suspect that will not stop getting even faster and continue growing in intelligence, the prediction goes.
Time adds another voice to this prophecy by quoting author Vernor Vinge who says, “Within 30 years, we will have the means to create superhman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended.”
It is just me, or is it hard to get excited over that?
These guys and others wrap this phenomenon up in a single word, and that word is – fittingly – Singularity. It means the moment when technological change becomes so rapid and profound, it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history.
Exciting or scary?
Again, unless you live your life in a computer lab, it seems hard to get excited about all this. Other words come to mind first. Words like depressed and maybe even fearful.
This dates me and sounds pretty low-tech by today’s standards, but anyone remember HAL from Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 sci-fi classic, 2001? When the astronaut decides to take the arrogant
computer down a peg, HAL asks in his sinister voice, “Just what do you think you’re doing, Dave? I really think I’m entitled to an answer to that question. I don’t think I’ll let you do that, Dave.”
In the metaphysical realm, you also have some obvious differences between man and machine. A lot of differences, starting with the existence of the human soul.
Could a computer somehow generate that? I know some auto enthusiasts who could swear their prized car has a soul, but are we all on the same page in defining what that is? And is it possible for a metallic box held together with screws to develop any kind of entity approaching a soul?
HAL came close to evidencing a moral – amoral would be more accurate – side, but we’re talking movies here and we’re talking a 53-year-old one at that predicting what the future would look like 10 years ago. Oops. Got that one wrong.
As for Watson, the concept of progress is defined in different ways by different people. Both here and in the virtual unknown.