The Future of (Synthetic) Media

Victor Riparbelli
Updated:
October 25, 2022

Is there anything we do that does not involve media? Hmm, I guess not really.

Let’s think about it for a second. Scrolling through our phones, walking around the city, or working – yup, media is everywhere. We consume more content than ever, and new technologies have enabled us to take active part in creating it as well. 

Today, anyone can create a beautiful design, edit a TikTok video, produce music from a laptop, or apply a funny Snapchat filter to their portrait. 🤳

So – what’s enabling this revolution in content creation? 🤔 

As computers get smarter, there’s less need for human input when it comes to content creation, and a new category of media is emerging. We call it synthetic media.

It’s kind of crazy to think about it.

It enables us to create pictures based on text prompts, realistic talking-head videos from typing in text, and get high-quality text by simply telling the AI what we want written and how.

This new category of media – synthetic media – is penetrating into our daily lives and will have major consequences for how we create and consume content.

The thing is that synthetic media is already transforming the media landscape and we’re on the verge of a major paradigm shift in media production and consumption.

Why? 

Because producing media is no longer a physical, but a digital process, which means we can create content in completely new ways. 🪄

In short: new processes of creation = new ideas = new forms of content.

And let’s not forget that this democratised creation goes hand in hand with democratised distribution.

Just think about how easy it is to create a blog, newsletter or new social media account. The new ways of distribution have never been easier to set up, and you can reach huge audiences with each piece of content you publish. #viral #audience #community

What is synthetic media?

Throughout history, media have constantly evolved. From cave paintings to print to mass and so-called “new media” to an entirely new category — synthetic media.

So what actually is synthetic media?

How is it different from the media formats we all know?

What does it mean for the future of media creation?

A short definition of synthetic media

Well, let’s start with a simple definition:

In recent years, the term “synthetic media” has emerged in common parlance as a catch-all to describe video, image, text, or voice that has been fully or partially generated by computers

And now on to some context: 

The ways that people communicate have always been closely tied to the technologies available at a given time. 🧠

People didn’t use phones back in the days of the Renaissance, for example, and we no longer paint in caves. But we do communicate via snaps, tiktoks, and DMs — completely new forms of content never seen before. 

What we’re seeing is a constant improvement of technology that leads to new ways of communicating, i.e., new media formats that vary in terms of creation, consumption, and contextualisation.

The state of synthetic media today

We’ve only recently reached a point where AI is — put simply — smart enough to read initial sets of data and create new content based on that input.

The ability of AI-driven systems to generate audiovisual content is, in our opinion, one of the most exciting developments enabled by recent progress in deep learning. 

The upcoming paradigm shift in media creation and consumption will likely change the equation for entire industries, like education, entertainment, medicine, retail… 

Sounds intriguing? Let’s dive sliiightly deeper…

How does synthetic media work?

So what’s going on “behind the scenes” of generating synthetic media?

We’ll try to describe it in a simple way, and explain it by comparing “normal” and “synthetic” video production. But first, some theory.

Synthetic media (some theory)

Synthetic media is created by artificial intelligence algorithms. Machine learning models recognise and analyse patterns of input data and learn to perform tasks based on these data, without human intervention. 

Sounds too complex? No worries, we’ll get to an example soon. 

Here’s the key thing: Advances in deep learning are enabling magic. Literally. 

Text, image, voice, and video content can be reproduced at such high fidelity that it’s almost impossible to tell whether it’s real or not. 

But as humans, we’re hardwired to spot even the slightest errors and slip-ups when it comes to reproducing human likeness. This is known as the “uncanny valley” and is the reason why most digitally created characters in Hollywood movies today still feel kind of weird and that’s why you can pretty easily detect deepfakes.

But technologies are evolving as we write these lines, and it’s only a matter of time before it will be possible to make a Hollywood-grade film from a browser. 

And it’s not a joke — we sincerely believe it will happen in 10-15 years.

These new technologies will allow people to bring their ideas to life in a whole new way, replacing now physical processes with an entirely digital one.

And we think it’s beautiful. 😉

Synthetic media (concrete example)

Let’s look at video production, for example.

Creating a 5-minute video in the “traditional” way requires a lot of different resources. It’s a fairly fragmented and lengthy process that involves writing a script, hiring a studio and film crew, actors, cameras, microphones — you name it. It takes a lot of time and a lot of money, and that’s just the beginning. 

Think about editing, translating the footage into different languages, and updating it with new information. 🤯

It’s prohibitive to even think about all that.

But using AI, video creation is already being turned on its head.

You no longer need any of the above to create realistic videos. AI now enables you to generate videos directly from your browser by simply typing your text in any language and selecting an avatar (based on a real person). You can also have your own avatar created and your own voice synthesized. Unlike a traditional video, AI video is generated in minutes and you can update it anytime.

Pretty cool, don’t you think? 😎

So what are the implications of this new, fully digitised process of creating content? 

Well, they’re definitely broader than you getting your video in minutes. 

This is still an early age for synthetic media, but many companies are already using these solutions to create videos for various purposes (employee training, marketing, internal communications, etc.). 

And we’re only talking about video here — let’s not forget text, image, and voice.

Synthetic media includes all types of media (text, image, voice, video) created partially or fully by AI algorithms.

Here’s our prediction: In the not-too-distant future, mass communication will increasingly become a thing of the past, and Hollywood will face global competition as the price of visual storytelling plummets.

Synthetic media will enable the creation of new forms of communication, and the media landscape will change completely.

Many people ask if it’s something we should be worried about. Short answer: No.

But go on as we’ll get to pros and cons later in this article.

What are synthetic and non-synthetic media?

When we talk about media, there are many different typologies, based on different criteria: 

  • distribution (old vs. new media)
  • production (analog vs. digital media)
  • supporting technology (print, radio, video…)
  • senses engaged (audio, visual, audiovisual, multisensory…)
  • distribution (earned vs. shared media)
  • creators (unilateral vs. user-generated content)…

The difference between synthetic and non-synthetic media

But let’s stick to our topic and go back to the basic definition that will help us separate synthetic media from non-synthetic:

Synthetic media are media that are partially or fully generated by computers. Non-synthetic media can be any other media, i.e., media that is produced by human input.

Not clear? Let’s look at two concrete examples.

Take a newspaper article, for instance. Written entirely by a human, it clearly falls under non-synthetic media. 

Now think of a photo where an Instagram filter is used to add bunny ears to a real human face. This is partially generated by AI (the pic being modified by algorithms), and we can thus say it’s “synthetic.”

Deep Learning + Fake = Deepfake

When we talk about synthetic media, we cannot ignore the infamous (yet descriptive) term “deepfake.” It’s a portmanteau of “deep learning” and “fake” that was first coined by a user on Reddit in 2017 and then became mainstream.

But are all deepfakes bad? 🤔

The term “deepfake” usually has a negative connotation. It is most often used to describe videos that have been manipulated by AI to make it look like someone is doing or saying things they did not actually do or say. Someone famous perhaps.

You’re probably familiar with these, but just in case you forgot:

The most popular example on the internet is a TikTok channel with deepfakes of Tom Cruise that immediately went viral. There are also other examples you’ve probably heard of, like the deepfake of Barack Obama saying things the real Obama would never say in public, or David Beckham speaking 9 languages to fight malaria.

Beckham-Malaria

While this malaria campaign uses deepfake technology for a good cause, there are numerous malicious applications of deepfakes out there: 

Revenge porn, spreading misinformation, and identity fraud are the most common.

Whether for good or bad causes, synthetic media will have a major impact on our society in the future — and our prediction is that, as with any other new media, society will adapt.

In fact, we think it already has. 👇

Today, no one doubts that the photos we see in magazines have been manipulated with Photoshop. Even our parents have somehow accepted weird face-swap apps and Snapchat filters and have become more critical (and also more open) about such media.

Synthetic media will have a major impact on our media perception in the future. The more people are exposed to such content, the more educated they become.

Yeah, the younger generations will adapt, but how about the older ones? 

We believe that education will play a major role in the recognition of synthetic media - for both young and older folks. 

The more people are exposed to AI-produced content, the faster they will get used to it and be able to distinguish what’s real and what’s fake.

7 types of synthetic media with examples

In recent years (or rather, months), it’s become clear: We’re rapidly moving towards a synthetic media future.

Technologies have matured, we’ve seen a surge in companies in the AI space (38 billion U.S. dollars invested in AI startups in 2021), and most importantly — AI-generated content is being used every day by independent creators and Fortune 500 companies alike. 

Synthetic media is becoming a part of our daily lives. 

Don’t believe it? Let’s have a look at some examples:

1. Synthetic video

Can you think of 3 videos you watched yesterday? Of course you can! 😊

There’s no doubt that video is taking over the internet. With attention being the new currency, video is the most engaging and therefore the most effective form of communication.

Computer generated (or synthetic or AI) video content can now be created at a fraction of the cost and effort, while still looking “real.” 

By removing the barriers posed by previously physical processes, companies like Synthesia are making huge strides towards accessibility and democratisation of video content creation.

Here’s how anyone can make a video from their browser, without cameras, actors, and microphones:

Text to speech

2. Synthetic images

If you could get any image generated by a computer, what would it be? 

It sounds like magic, but Dall-E 2 makes it possible.

Dall-E 2 is an image generation system by OpenAI that uses AI to generate images based on text input. 

The technology is certainly booming right now and you’ve probably seen some of the fun images brought to life by AI models. 

How about art, you say? Well, the system is capable of generating both realistic images and art. 🎨🖌

Here are some of the famous examples:

Examples of AI image synthesis based on descriptions in natural language.

3. Synthetic voice

Think of virtual assistants, call centers, and dubbing in foreign languages. The majority of them still use real human voices today, but it’s definitely about to change.

The difference between human and synthetic voices is becoming increasingly imperceptible, and AI simulations of real people’s voices are becoming more and more popular.

You know that awkward feeling of hearing your own voice recorded? Soo cringe.

With AI voice cloning, you’re able to clone your own voice or create completely new voices to fit different characters. Up to you. 😉

4. AI-generated text

Don’t feel like writing? Let AI do the job for you. 

You’ve probably heard of GPT3, right? It is the third-generation language model created by OpenAI that uses deep learning for text generation of different text based content, such as articles, stories, legal documents, news reports, dialogues…

Starting from a small amount of input text, it is able to produce large amounts of high-quality copy and save you plenty of time. And yes, it can also be pretty creative. 

Tempted to try it out? There are many applications already using GPT-3, and it has been publicly available since 2020, so anyone can experiment with it. ✍

5. AI influencers

Synthetic media also blurs the lines between where the digital realm begins and ends, and AI influencers generated by machine learning algorithms are a case in point.

Take perhaps the most famous one, Lil Miquela

She has 3 million followers on Instagram and regularly collaborates with big fashion brands (like Chanel, Samsung, Calvin Klein…). 

The algorithmically generated star describes herself as a “19-year-old Robot living in LA” and represents a completely new category of digital identities. 

Is she real? Hard to say. 

Is she any different from real human influencers? Hardly.

6. Mixed reality

Think Snapchat filters, furniture fitting, or — if you’re old enough — the 2016 Pokemon Go mania. 

These are just a few examples of mixed reality that all use technology as an additional layer to the physical environment, usually through a smartphone camera or headset. 

In mixed reality, physical and virtual objects are blended, and coexist and interact in real time.

The applications (and benefits!) of mixed reality are endless, as it can be used across fields such as education, entertainment, healthcare, education, and more.

7. Face swap

Ever tried swapping your face with someone else’s? It’s fun, right? 

There are many apps out there that use AI to detect faces in photos or videos and replace them with other faces. 

This is the technology that lies behind the famous (and convincing) deepfakes of Tom Cruise and other “fake” celebrity accounts. 

While face swapping seems harmless at first glance, the technology can also be used for negative purposes (e.g., revenge porn, political propaganda, or bullying).

As it’s getting easier to produce synthetic content, we’re already surrounded by it. Deepfakes, AI avatars, synthetic video, and AI-generated text are becoming the new (internet) normal.

Pros and cons of synthetic media

So we agree that synthetic media is jaw-droppingly impressive and powerful. Therefore, we shouldn’t undermine its potential — for good, and also for bad. 

Here’s a list of pros and cons:

5 pros of AI generated media

The most obvious benefits of using AI are improving human performance and making our everyday lives easier. 

Just think of voice assistants, navigation apps, and smart home devices. Hard to imagine life without them. 😉

AI is — more so than humans — capable of doing amazing work in many different fields, from medicine to law to handling basic household tasks.

When we apply AI to media creation, we get many pros of synthetic media:

  • AI tools are always readily available and easy to use.
  • AI eliminates monotonous tasks.
  • It helps people work faster and more efficiently.
  • It enables people’s creative expression in new, unprecedented ways.
  • It enriches our experiences (websites, gaming, VR/AR, etc.).

4 cons of using artificial intelligence in media creation

We’ve already mentioned some misuses of AI and synthetic media. 

The biggest concern of using AI for creating content is the misuse of the technology as such, which can lead to:

  • Questionable human-likeness, also known as the “uncanny valley”
  • False implications of people
  • Manipulation and sharing of misinformation
  • Undermining trust in media

We believe these advantages and disadvantages of synthetic media will change as technology continues to evolve and become more socially accepted. 

But the future will definitely be impacted by the potential that AI unlocks.

Just some most obvious examples: 

We think that digital assistants will actually look real, virtual celebrities (or their digital twins) will live on forever, and gaming will feel much more lifelike than it does today. 

What would you add? 🤔

Societal impacts and the future of synthetic media

So what is the state of synthetic media today? Well, it’s certainly catching on. 

But as an entirely new category, it’s yet to be fully adopted by society.

To illustrate this, let’s look at the technology adoption lifecycle model that applies to any new product or innovation. 

We’re currently in the early days — a mix of enthusiastic innovators and early adopters, along with fear, distrust, and caution in common discourse is natural. 

Once technology catches on, society becomes more accepting. Our prediction is it will likely happen over the next few years.

We’re in the early days of a paradigm shift. Public sentiment towards synthetic media is becoming more positive, and we expect a real breakthrough in the use of AI in the next few years.

Let’s not forget: From the beginning of time, the way we have created and shared our stories has been in constant flux. We’ve gone from cave paintings and the printing press to internet, cameras, PhotoShop, and Snapchat filters.

Democratising content creation

All these technologies for creative expression and communication have had a significant impact on society and human relations. Mostly for good, but also for bad. 

Sure, creative expression is a powerful tool for communicating important ideas and causes. 

But it is equally powerful for spreading misinformation and polarisation.

This has been true of every iteration of media technology throughout history; criminals enjoy the benefits of the telephone and internet as much as any law-abiding office worker.

Gutenberg had a harder time than any of today's tech pioneers ever had. 🙂

When it comes to creating content, synthetic media is radically changing content production as we know it. 

Here’s what we expect:

  • Synthetic media will significantly accelerate creative expression.
  • It will empower creators.
  • It will narrow the gap between ideas and content.
  • It will unlock new methods of communication and storytelling.
  • It will enable unprecedented human-computer interfaces.
  • And it will challenge our notion of where the digital realm begins and ends.

Cultural understanding of different media formats

Synthetic media also brings with it questions around how we consume and contextualise media.

Rightly so, the societal impact of this new category of technologies has been a hot topic in the press over the last two years. 

The ability to generate Hollywood-worthy (or better) visual effects, without the budget, time, or skill traditionally required, opens up the potential for both good and bad.

So what happens when synthetic media takes over the internet?

Just like with any new content format throughout history, consumers will become more educated and better able to understand them:

Soon we will need to be as critical towards videos as we are towards photos today and not assume that what we see is necessarily real. This education will take time. We believe the best method to educate is exposure: Once people start watching celebrities speak foreign languages, interacting with virtual avatars, and creating their own synthetic media they will increasingly become aware of these technologies.
- Victor Riparbelli

We believe that the cultural understanding of media will change radically in the coming years.

The cost and skill barriers to content creation are evaporating, and new, altered forms of communication are on the rise (think TikTok). 

These will change the way we communicate with each other, both on a personal level and in a broad media context.

The future is... Synthetic!

Our company’s standpoint here is clear.

We are enthusiastic about this new future we are moving into and we’re aware of the responsibility we have as a company. 

It is obvious to us that artificial intelligence and similarly powerful technologies cannot be built with ethics as an afterthought. It needs to be front and centre, an integral part of the company: reflected in both company policy and in the technology we are building.

We're in the early days of a paradigm shift. Content production is moving from the physical world to computers, enabling us to do things we've never been able to do before.

Don’t forget our prediction about making Hollywood films on laptops. 😉

The internet will transform from static, text-based interactions to rich and interactive ones, and new modes of communication will change the media landscape for good.

As with any other technology, we don't yet know what the final form will look like. We don't know what the interplay between human creativity and cutting-edge technology means for the future of content creation and consumption. 

But we are looking at it — curious, optimistic, and beyond excited. 🚀

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