AI: The Holodeck is in sight
Helena Packer
Issue: March/April 2021

AI: The Holodeck is in sight

A prehistoric person once looked up at a starry sky and felt insignificant. Turning away, they sighed heavily and walked into their cave to leave an ochre handprint on the wall. With that small act, they shouted to an indifferent infinity, “I am here, and I matter!”  I have no proof, but I think that’s the moment storytelling began. We haven’t stopped telling our stories since, eventually embracing every technological innovation that has helped us be more creative and find unique forms of self-expression. 

The printing press was once a cutting-edge tool. It democratized ideas by freeing them to cross oceans. It then bridged those oceans by giving us a new understanding of our common humanity. Movies were another huge step forward, allowing ideas to reach millions. Just as the printing press spurred literacy, film birthed a new vernacular, the visual language of film. This language has become universal and it has taught us to think in a nonlinear way. Our very perception of time changed. In less than a decade after the inception of filmmaking, we began to think in terms of flashback and timelapse. 

Now, artificial intelligence is the driving force in that same technological continuum. AI will usher in new ways of thinking about reality in the same way that film changed our understanding of time.

AI is controversial. Throughout history, change has often been met with projections of calamity and doom. But the story of humanity, for all its disastrous mistakes, has been one of positive growth. People once thought that televisions emitted dangerous x-rays and that the human body could not withstand the incredible speed of 30mph train travel.

But, in each case, we ultimately embraced the future and prospered. This next step in our technological evolution will expand our minds in unparalleled ways. Imagine a world where we can stand next to Monet as he paints his water lilies, take a walk on the moon with Jules Verne or have tea with Winnie-the-Pooh. Imagine telling a friend a story of a warm summer’s eve at the lake house of your childhood. Artificial intelligence, coupled with augmented reality, will allow your friend to step back in time with you and see that lake, not as a description of that lake, or a 2D representation of it, but the lake seen through your eyes. Such viscerally shared moments will help us communicate and engender empathy in ways never before possible. 

Sophisticated visual effects tools, already accessible on mobile phones or in the cloud, portend this future. Today, a TikTok user can add convincing rain to a video. Tomorrow, as computer processing speeds increase and AI develops, a hajib-clad mother in Malaysia will have the same filmmaking tools at her disposal as a baseball-hatted director in Hollywood. 

AI will preserve the legacy of those who have passed by analyzing their appearance, mannerisms and thoughts. Young filmmakers will learn from great masters. One day you may attend a lecture where Quentin Tarantino talks with Akira Kurosawa and John Ford about their influences on his work. On a more personal level, your great-great-grandchildren will be able to converse with your AI-driven avatar.

Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar, has written “that only about 40 percent of what we think we ‘see’ comes in through our eyes. The rest is made up from memory or patterns that we recognize from past experience.” 

That means 60 percent of the world we see is constructed in our minds. What if AI could reveal even 10 percent more of what is actually in front of us? Would we think in different ways? Would there be new colors, sounds or angels everywhere?

We are on the verge of experiencing these miracles. But to conjure them we need powerful tools. Current technology lacks the bandwidth to create the billions of details these new forms of communication will require. Using bespoke neural networks and advanced compute power, AI will fill in the details needed to create convincing digital worlds. It will also make suggestions based on its training data, and ease workloads by assuming many of the tedious tasks in visual effects. Tools that allow us to create AI actors, do restoration work and create AI-driven digital environments are already in the pipeline. 

The hard facts behind all this philosophizing are that Netflix spent $17.3 billion on video content, Disney+ already has 95 million subscribers worldwide. The streaming channels can barely keep up with the voracious demand. Augmented Reality, mixed reality and computer games add their needs to an already overwhelmed industry. People in their homes are creating their own content. TikTok has over a billion users worldwide and 500 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute. Each person has their unique voice and now they have the opportunity to have that voice heard around the world.

During the COVID pandemic, film and television production slowed, but the technologies that support Facebook and Zoom allowed the world to continue the conversation started around the campfire thousands of years ago. Even as the current crisis wanes, the use of these forms of communication is unlikely to diminish. They have become part of the storytelling toolkit. Similarly, virtual production is becoming a practical application in Hollywood. LED screens and realtime render engines give filmmakers the freedom to work remotely, more efficiently and with greater creativity. Magic hour can last all day and sets can be changed in moments. AI tools will support this incredible surge of productivity and creativity.  

The Holodeck is in sight and with it a world as different from ours, as ours is from the cave dwellers with the ochre-dipped hands. But our worlds are timelessly connected by our intrinsic need to tell our stories and shout out, “We are here and we matter!” 

Helena Packer is the SVP/General Manager of DGene US (