Mirror of The Soul
Synthetic media is on its way - but what does it mean? We will be tackling this question at the Blow Your Mind event organised by Yle Innovations on 5 November. This text can also be seen as a synthetic version, with a video at the end of the article.
I often recall the insight of science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. A new technology is supposed to feel magical, but when will there be a leap of faith when it comes to the supernatural?
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.― Arthur C. Clarke
We are used to keeping our faith to ourselves, and we know how to respect each other's beliefs. However, technology is obviously a human creation, so shouldn’t it be possible to discuss the beliefs surrounding it?
I'm not so sure! At the very least, there is no point in discussing nonsense such as 5G microchips in vaccines. But, for example, spirits and holograms floating in the air are generally accepted, also enjoying an unchallenged presence in the media.
However, our guard goes right up when someone tries to sell us something based on these.
On the other hand, because recommendation algorithms undoubtedly affect our everyday lives, doesn’t it make sense to believe that they are all-powerful? I believe that faith in a greater power possesses the same characteristics as faith in a greater technology. It would also be a good idea to treat the latter with the same sanctity we give religion - the roads of Algorithms are unknown to us mere mortals.
I am fascinated by questions of faith primarily where artificial intelligence is concerned. When I tell my friends about everything it is capable of, I get really enthusiastic about the nuances in the history of neural network development. And, thanks to this enthusiasm, it’s all I can do to keep myself from wading into the supernatural when formulating my words. I’m unintentionally laying the groundwork for the nonsense I mentioned above.
Synthetic media is media generated by artificial intelligence. It can actually mean just about anything, but, in practice, we have come the furthest with the development of different kinds of talking heads. In this text I will focus on something we call synthetic human beings.
A synthetic person exists only as a video - in other words, it is in no way a being in a physical or even digital reality. The body and face displayed in the video consist of approximately one million pixels, which change thirty times per second, and speech synchronized with the mouth pixels is a sound wave consisting of 44,100 samples per second. It is magical how developers have succeeded in combining neural networks to produce an end result that appears, for all intents and purposes, like a real person to the viewer.
That is perhaps the most restrained technical description I can offer. I feel that my words won’t be adequate enough to explain what a synthetic person isn’t. It's just a hand puppet. It looks and sounds like a real person, but it’s only following the script written for it by a biological person. The expression of a synthetic person seems to be an interpretation of the text, but this isn’t possible without understanding. When examining faith in artificial intelligence, the fact that a neural network does not possess any sort of understanding cannot be overstated, no matter how human it might look.
It is said that the eyes are the mirror of the soul. Actually, this refers to a person’s gaze and facial microexpressions. They elicit the neuropsychological magic in our brain that we call empathy. When we see something in someone's eyes, we only see what we think we see. The expression on a biological person’s face may actually mean something, but there is absolutely nothing behind the expression of a person generated by a neural network.
The look shared by people in love creates a cosmic connection and the world's most wonderful feeling. I shudder to think that connecting with the soul of another person would only happen inside their own head! On the other hand, it is fascinating to think that, if this is indeed the case, does the other person actually need a soul to begin with? Then, we would be close to making the words of CMX, my favourite band as a teenager, a reality: The look of a synthetic person tells us exactly what we want it to say.
It is very difficult not to think that things which look human do not have an iota of humanity inside. We think that animals think like humans. We ascribe feelings to inanimate objects, especially if they have something resembling eyes. If you tumble down this rabbit hole, it is easy to think that it’s only a matter of time before a synthetic person is able to produce a text of their own - a leap of faith, as it were.
And, then, when a large number of people fall under this collective sway, the money starts moving. I’m waiting for someone to come up with a humanoid, AI-based cryptocurrency that uses a quantum computer. Who wouldn't invest in it just to be sure? You never know how it might turn out.
I’m not a big fan of threat scenarios based on human nature. In this sense, I have such faith in technology that I genuinely hope this neuropsychological magic will make its way into our lives. We’re all familiar with Microsoft's failed paper clip character, Mr. Clippy. And it would be naive to think that it would have worked if its eyes had only looked real. But, I have to throw in a caveat here. Some other approach, some other context? Maybe on the display of a self-service checkout? A smiling employee enjoying their work in the local shop brings us pleasure - why can’t the software do the same?
Regardless of whether synthetic souls find their biological love, new media requires new critical media literacy.
The text is based on the author's experiences with the AI discussion. Wesa Aapro works as a Creative Technologist at Yle Innovations, believes in the possibilities of technology and tries not to believe in the impossibilities of technology. The purpose of the text is to remind us of our species’ tendency to believe in matters of faith. A fact-based discussion on synthetic media will take place at Blow Your Mind on 5 November - get your tickets now!