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Instagram's 'virtual' celebrities (bbc.com)
202 points by timoth on Apr 4, 2018 | hide | past | web | favorite | 99 comments

This is a corporate ownership of personality.

Shudu is ageless, ever available, won't do anything against the corporate image and can be bought and sold.

Ok, she is a generated personality but this will happen with real people too. Tom Cruise is too old to appear in action films? Well, his image won't be.. even after he is dead and gone his image will be owned by a corporation. He won't be too short to appear as Jack Reacher anymore either.. We might be lucky with some celebrities who are already dead, at least they will get left behind. Its difficult to know how this will affect new talent though, perhaps society will become sick of recorded images and turn to live events but I can see that the CGI power will increase such that these images can be generated live.

We already had some of this with Tupac of course

This is already happening. In Disney™'s Rogue One™: A Star Wars™ Story, they had Grand Moff Tarkin played by a recreation of Peter Cushing. Disney claims they won't use computers to resurrect Carrie Fisher, but I'm not sure I believe The Mouse.

I remember back when Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within came out, Square was saying that the Aki Ross character model would be like an actress. "While Square ruled out any chance of a sequel to The Spirits Within before it was even completed, Sakaguchi intended to position Aki as being the "main star" for Square Pictures, using her in later games and films by Square, and including the flexibility of being able to modify aspects such as her age for such appearances."

source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Final_Fantasy%3A_The_Spirits_W...

Sopranos did it like 15 years ago with Tony's mother, and I'm sure they weren't the first.

Well, not exactly. They reused old tapes of her and superimposed it on a scene [1]. It's an important distinction since they didn't actually create anything new, like what deepfakes do.

[1] http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/tech/news/2001-02-28-sopranos...

I am still a little obsessed with Aki Ross

> Disney claims they won't use computers to resurrect Carrie Fisher

They already did...

Not exactly -- they used CGI to reproduce young Carrie Fisher while she was still alive.

They used a CGI version of Paul Walker in Fast and Furious 7 after he died.



Or maybe we'll just start watching live TV of simulated life interacting with each other. Sort of like the Truman Show. Just like Big Brother or Jersey shore, but this time people can pay real money for things to happen to the simulated people. They will have simulated emotional registers designed to mimic our own.

Sometimes one might wonder if we're someone elses Truman Show. It's OK though, in that case climate change doesn't matter :-)

> They will have simulated emotional registers designed to mimic our own.

There was also a good SF film similar to this called "Surrogates" (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0986263/?ref_=nm_flmg_act_35), which somehow flew under the radar when it premiered, back in 2009. It's a combination between what you're describing and Asimov's description of life on planet Solaria. From the wiki page of the latter: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Naked_Sun

> The book focuses on the unusual traditions, customs, and culture of Solarian society. The planet has a rigidly controlled population of 20,000, and robots outnumber humans twenty thousand to one. People are taught from birth to avoid personal contact, and live on huge estates, either alone or with their spouse only. Face-to-face interaction (referred to in the book as "seeing"), and especially impregnating a woman, when replacement of a decedent is necessary, was seen as unavoidable but dirty. Communication is completed instead through holography (referred to in the book as "viewing") , where in contrast to "seeing", they are free of modesty, and have no problem if an interlocutor sees the other's naked body. A two-way teleconference allowed the participants to hear and see each other, but in 3D - an idea almost unheard-of at the time of publication, when color television was a novelty.

And if you can influence the plot, The Sims?

You've just described the plot of The Congress: https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/the_congress/

There's more to the movie than that, but that's the first act. Goes a little deeper, and gets a bit weird after that; preserving the "image" of Princess Buttercup gets the ball rolling, though.

One of the future prediction I read 10 years ago was about how live events and personal interactions with the stardom (a lunch with an actor, a drink with the drum player) would be the truly defining leisure activity that would separate the elite from the 99.999%.

I am thinking about Gibson and Idoru and I think this is something he missed about the future.

I wonder how long it is before actors start selling the rights to use their image after death.

So is mickey mouse and any other character created by artists.

How about Carrie Fisher? She's still in Star Wars!

> Tom Cruise is too old to appear in action films? Well, his image won't be.. even after he is dead and gone his image will be owned by a corporation.

We all know who that corporation/religious group will be, too.

On a tangent, have you considered that Tom Cruise may have the most wonderful life in existence? He's known, and probably liked, by billions for his movies, he's adored by his fellow religious adherents, the religion provides him a pampered lifestyle where his every whim is taken care of be what are essentially servants (religious adherents instructed to never question him and see to his every need, no matter how hard or ridiculous[1]), has enough money to do whatever he wants due to his fame and career, and has the idea that he deserves this as a chosen individual strongly reinforced every day by both the people surrounding him and the reality of his situation.

I mean, a billionaire Saudi Prince might have it pretty good, but they have nothing on Tom Cruise. Even a dictator with total control over his people usually has some repercussions when visiting other locales.

It's not something I would wish for myself, but I can't honestly say if I was in that situation I would decide I should get out of it, given how it would condition me. He's likely the most "blessed" individual to walk the Earth to this point, given what he has access to in the modern age.

1: As recounted by Leah Remini in an interview by Joe Rogan regarding Scientology.

Yes, but he's profoundly mentally ill.

He (seemingly) has, at least, borderline personality disorder and possibly NPD.

That suggests highly unstable relationships, emotions, etc. Not a life you would wish for yourself.

Material luxury both comes with its own trappings (eg. fear of being kidnapped; a fear that your friends only want you for your money/fame; which creates paranoia in most rich people) -- and then, in lots of cases, mental illnesses.

Internet psychiatric diagnosis is something we can do without here. It doesn't gratify intellectual curiosity (https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html) and gets pretty ugly pretty quickly. Please don't post like that to HN.


> Yes, but he's profoundly mentally ill.

He (seemingly) has, at least, borderline personality disorder and possibly NPD.

Please don't make armchair diagnoses of people like this. I think you need to seriously reconsider how appropriate it is to make cavalier declarations of another person's mental health in a public forum. Even if you were a clinically trained professional, making this assertion on a message board would be baseless speculation.

EDIT: I find the flippancy with which you're commenting in this entire subthread to be demeaning and inconsiderate. Please step back for a moment and understand that you're extrapolating speculative diagnoses from observations you have not made in a clinical setting. You're pontificating about someone's mental health despite the fact that you cannot possibly be informed about it.

Yes, but we are only in a comment thread on HN and talking about a celebrity who can be in no possible danger from anything I am saying.

> making this assertion on a message board would be baseless speculation.

Yes, its speculation. But arent we exactly on a message board where we are speculating? Isnt this whole conversation, from the OP article itself, a game of speculation?

Why refrain from speculating about the mental health of a person?

You seem to be repeating good-natured pablum which applies, of course, when dealing with specific vulnerable people who could be affected by such speculation. In this case, certainly, it would be bad.

But we're not in that case. Its entirely reasonable to make a judgement about the mental health of other people, in the course of assessing their life.

> You're pontificating about someone's mental health despite the fact that you cannot possibly be informed about it.

Yes, like every person in this thread on every topic in this thread. Speculation isn't bad in itself. It's pretty necessary in the course of discussing a topic.

I am not diagnosing anyone. I am speculating about a diagnosis for the purpose of illustrating problems I believe Tom Cruize may have: so what?

> Yes, but he's profoundly mentally ill.

He seems to be a very happy, upbeat person who has avoided taking any psychotropic drugs. If that's what "profound mental illness" looks like, sign me up.

The people most emotionally hostile to taking drugs for mental ill-health are typically those people who need them and deny their need for them. The hostility Cruise displays feels a lot -- to me -- like this kind of denial.

It has a quite a specific feeling to it. The manic who denies the need for drugs is somewhat correct in how good they feel, but they lack the self-insight to be aware of their impact on others and self-destructive tendencies.

Their "intensity" arises from the europhia of (hypo)mania, the feeling that it is too good to be "medicated away" etc. and a strong desire to persist in their (hypo)manic state. But it is mostly quite debilitating, and can quickly exacerbate into psychosis.

> Yes, but he's profoundly mentally ill.

But how much of that is because of his situation? Is it possible to remain what we would consider a sane, well-adjusted individual given prolonged exposure to that situation?

Are dictators or the kings of ages past with absolute or close to absolute power any saner?

> Not a life you would wish for yourself.

Yes, as I said, not something I would want for myself, at least in my current mindset. But if I was in that situation for more than a few months, I'm not sure what or who I would be after that time.

A lot of actors have personality disorders. The mimicry of the behavior of others is a technique in navigating social situations when you are unable/unaware of how you feel.

In the "crazy interview" Tom did for scientology you can literally see him flick through a deck of emotions. His entire demeanor is a bit like a random walk through mimicking the emotional states of others.

I can't recall if I had any idea of the trigger in that case. But, hypothetically, it could be a technique to disguise an unpalatable emotion he was havin. Often, I believe, this would be rage/anger/contempt.

I wonder whether the "intense eyes" of cruize/kanye/etc. are that of an intense rage/contempt. Their demeanor is certianly mimicry, what it is they would be emoting is harder to ascertain.

People describe being around that type as like "walking on egg-shells". That's because they really are in an anger-prone state... you just can't see it. But you can "feel" that if you slip up, the rage will become public and take the form of abuse.

>People describe being around that type as like "walking on egg-shells". That's because they really are in an anger-prone state.

I know several people who have worked with Cruise on films who describe their experience as the opposite of this.

But it's not at all evident that narcissists suffer from their condition, as long as they can afford to live the way they prefer. In fact all Dark Triad traits make more sense when viewed as alternative social and reproductive strategies enforced on the level of phenotype.

There are no signs of that at all. I see the opposite. Someone who is brave and stands up for his opinion about the psychology profession.

In an insane world, sane people are said to be insane. There is a huge amount of truth in that statement.

>He's likely the most "blessed" individual to walk the Earth to this point, given what he has access to in the modern age.

He has been through three divorces. If I was going to pick the most wonderful life in existence it won't have a divorce in it.

This is going to change the world in a substantial way.

Imagine when these characters become so lifelike that they are near indistinguishable from reality. Imagine when someone gives them a voice and personality, and you can speak with them. Imagine then that they star in their own movies, and some of the personality traits you've helped shaped or bared witness to emerge in those movies. The connection you will feel.

Today celebrities are inherently limited by their own bandwidth. These people will have near unlimited bandwidth. Everyone can talk with them. I'm thinking of the movie Her.

This is really interesting!

Edit: This made me think; The Sims in year 2050, might be immoral; almost Truman Show-esque.

You're saying it like it hasn't already happened. Most models already are carefully crafted images, with a lot of post-processing happening so what you end up seeing is more of an art piece inspired by the model than the person behind it.

Un-lifelike famous characters are already very much a thing, especially in e.g. japan where there's characters appearing everywhere.

You misunderstand the point of models. A model's photoshoot is rarely about the model, or the "person behind it". It is an art piece. It is not meant to be a candid photo like what you throw up on your social media. Often models are just for the purpose of branding, to convey a lifestyle or value, or to get likes.

It gets a little blurrier with pop stars though. How much of what we think we know as Katie Perry or Rihanna is really them? How many of the 'authentic' bursts of personality are real, and how many are artificial? And to what degree might they themselves not be able to tell the difference even?

While I personally am not a fan of this kind of artificiality, I'm also not saying it's something to be outraged about. I find it fascinating, more than anything.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lf4VQcmxGp8 <- A recap of Katy Perry's live stream from her "witness" house experience.

"‘I created this character called Katy Perry. I didn’t want to be Katheryn Hudson. It was too scary’" - https://www.theguardian.com/music/2017/jun/11/katy-perry-int...

Was just interesting in the light of choosing Katy as an example.

Ha, yeah. I'm cynical enough about it all at this point that I think this might very well be part of a carefully crafted 'development', perhaps partly to let her not go crazy, and partly for a new 'phase' of commercial viability. She might not be 100% in on the joke even.

That's the problem though. Models are people just as much as you or I, or actors. You can justify manipulating anybody for a singular purpose in that way.

"My job is to make my company money, so I have to act exactly like they want me to. Soon I will have to look how they want me to. Say what they want me to. Be who they want me to be. To convey a specific message that is not my own."

At the end of the day, the fake person has more power than the real one, because it is backed by corporate interests.

Wow can't believe this didn't make waves, this is exactly up my alley.

This is the plot of Simone (2001.)


I doubt it.

Characters don't need to be lifelike and indistinguishable from reality to be huge celebrities as is. Animated cartoon characters can already do everything you just said, and are sometimes even more popular than humans.

There is no reason to believe a character indistinguishable from a real human would be capable of achieving more popularity than a similar human.

Regarding your last paragraph, I’d still say there would be an inherent difference considering a single human being can’t speak / connect with everyone on earth. This limits the connection you feel. If you feel like things you’ve said to the digital person reflect in their personality, I believe you will feel connected to a much larger degree.

If you’ve seen the movie Her, that’s sort of what I’m thinking about.

For those who missed it, at GDC 2018 there was a demo of real-time, nearly photo-realistic virtual human synthesis: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9owTAISsvwk

And behind the scenes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NW6mYurjYZ0

Still a little on the wrong side of the uncanny valley, imo, but for a real-time demo it was extremely impressive.

Your best friend in 2050 most likely won't be human at all.

Already isn’t - she’s a cat :-)

The lack of mention of Vocaloids strikes me as interesting/odd: they're literally virtual pop stars/idols.

And while they're not intended to look or pass as humans they "give" hours-long packed concerts: https://youtu.be/HI0mv7P_sRk

It also fails to mention virtual youtubers, who are "virtual" youtube personalities with a 3D model as body and whose videos take place entirely inside 3D environments.

Obviously they're being played by real actors with motion control equipment, but there's a lot of work that goes into making them feel believable as virtual characters, with facial expressions and lots of other animations that are probably added after recording.

They've become very popular in Japan over the last year. The most famous one is called Kizuna Ai: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NasyGUeNMTs

> And while they're not intended to look or pass as humans they "give" hours-long packed concerts: https://youtu.be/HI0mv7P_sRk

That's because they learned their lessons from 20 years ago https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ONIKb1EwX6U (kyoko date, one of the very first realistic virtual idol, 1997) (god, when did I become old enough to see patterns through generations :|).

edit: I find the new crop of virtual idols a bit creepy (anime charadesign, childish themes). Might be a generation thing.

My thoughts as well, but still an interesting article.

Reminds me very strongly of "Idoru" (1996) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Idoru

> “If you think about social media, Instagram isn’t you. It’s just a digital version of you – one that shows photographs, sometimes videos, and comments on specific things,”

"Ceci n'est pas un pipe.": the image is not the thing, and there may be images without referents.

Thank you, I was trying to remember which sci-fi book touched on the same idea.

The commoditization of beauty. Or the next thing that will become cheap, by these providers of beauty. Hopefully the market will be oversaturated with beauty, computer generated perfection and after some time swimming in this junk, we will once again appreciate real people, with all their problems, inconsistencies, imperfections.

Until then let us all hail our gods of technological progress.

And then we will have artificial problems, inconsistencies and imperfections.

There will always be capitalization and fabrication on what is popular and perceived to be "good". "Reality" TV is a thing :)

But then, we will have virtual beauty, with some human imperfections added here and there.

I think this is a good thing. We all know models are heavily photoshopped and overlaid with CGI. But we also cannot separate that from the real person, even though the image isn't real. If this catches on in fashion I feel a weight can be lifted from our shoulders. We will know most of the images are completely computer-generated.

I mean sure, that's what we saw with retouched playboy centerfolds a couple decades back, right?


It's commoditization of human beauty.

It's not commoditization of beauty.

If this works, humans can't possibly compete. Not on the scale that virtual people can. This is simply another step towards a kind of singularity.

I suspect the most competitive virtual supermodel would be that created by a person (say, some schlub) who desperately needed to be such a supermodel and could handle themselves in that situation: projecting their own desired identity through the mask, to animate it.

Or, created by an AI which itself is a needy schlub that craves validation and can handle itself as a supermodel. There's no reason this hunger should be exclusive to humans only. And an AI would have greater bandwidth for learning what the public wanted from 'it as a supermodel'.

It doesn't even have to be human.

Take a popular Pixar character, add an AI and a bunch of stock photo backgrounds, and you'll hook the under-12's in a minute.

I'm not sure how I feel about this. This could be a good thing by saving celebrities the need to appear perfect everywhere.

However, I feel like this could be a whole new ball game in terms of setting unrealistic expectations (not that they aren't doing that anyway with photoshop). But if it is transparent that these IG models are virtual and not real, maybe that will help kids understand that real humans can't look as perfect as a virtual model and that helps them create realistic expectations?

edit: I suppose they could also use virtual models and fatten them up / give them more acne to make them more 'realistic'

I'm going with unrealistic expectations.

Instagram celebs are either hot girls, or guys with lots of money to pay for promoted content.

They dont take their own photos, they use professional photographers. Anyone without the professional style or not willing to play facebook's algorithm game loses out.

The internet is getting very specialized and content quality is skyrocketing.

>> Instagram celebs are either hot girls, or guys with lots of money to pay for promoted content.

Guys are hot, too. Not all of them need to pay for ads, and not all the women got there without it.

Why bother when you could have normal people too? I mean I guess the main thing why you'd want a virtual model is to give them an unnatural appearance, like the Miquela character mentioned in the article, or err, the one with the huge eyes in a recent or upcoming movie.

Because the virtual models are cheaper and will be wholly owned and operated by the company that owns them?

[Virtual model] Miquela: I think most of the celebrities in popular culture are virtual!

I can't disagree. When I was a kid, I wanted to eat Butterfingers because of Bart Simpson and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles made me want Pizza Hut. Along the same lines, "physical" celebrities have teams of PR agents telling their clients how to act and shaping the public's perception of them.

This isn't really a new idea, just a new vector, right?

> For fashion brands, a high-tech mannequin offers intriguing possibilities. She, he, or it can be placed in any situation in any given outfit.

Would not bet on that. If this stuff holds foot, these models will soon have rights and fanatics who will lament when these things wear or do things non characteristical of them. They'll have to have rigid, stereotypical personalities to which the follower communities will practically confine them.

There was a black mirror episode about something very similar. "The Waldo Moment"

That's an obvious cartoon character though, these are models trying to look like real people - and having fooled people already.

To be fair, I believe people are only fooled because we already do so much CGI to real human celebrities that they're already basically indistinguishable from a well-done virtual creation.

"Normal" humans look far different from celebrities and these CGI creations, but celebrities and these CGI creations look similar because celebrities are already mostly CGI.

I don't think that makes a lot of difference. It is more about identity/persona owned by companies.

I mean, Tony the Tiger has tens of thousands of followers too...

This brings the "unrealistic body image" discussion to a whole new level. it could have a positive impact - in a way escalating the realization that media/fashion models are not "real" either.

Media/fashion models are “real” similar to how exotic supercars are “real”.

Fashion models aren't real because the images of them are photoshopped. If you looked at the humans that inspired the images you wouldn't see the same thing.

Exotic cars are... expensive? A lot of the appeal of owning one is the perception of (and the very real) cost, but they are still what they seem to be.

Really hot and beautiful models exist. They are just rare. They are the 1%. But out of 500M DAU, that means they are 5 millions, and they are the most popular because of their beauty. The unrealistic expectation comes from the fact that people get used to seeing the top 1% because of social media.

Reminds me of Hatsune Miku from Japan, a humanoid persona, with a huge following. Miku is not deceptive about its virtuality. But people still love it. Some people love anime characters - there's a huge culture behind that.

The problem occurs when there's deception about its identity. There will be trust issues in the near future if things like this persist. Then again, would it even matter if some celebrity is a real person in the future?

I wouldn't be surprised if the window is already closing for this constructed personalities where you can't tell if they are real or not. People get relatively savvy to the nuances of new media fairly quickly (within a few years). Sure there will be notable exceptions but I bet some unspoken norms / rules / clues will develop and be roughly accurate guides as to which dimensions the people they see on their screens are real vs. artificial.

For anyone interested in seeing how this could play out in the future, I recommend watching The Congress. It has a somewhat low IMDB rating, but I liked it as it addresses the corporatization of identity and the extent some people will go to live vicariously : http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1821641/

This is directly form the movie "S1m0ne". What an uninspired artist :(

Except that the titular character in that one was actually a real actor, :p

Miquela is so blatantly CGI it's a little sad that some people are confused if she's real or not.

The SF lover in me loves this. The person who cares about others in me is glad that this might change the way we idolize celebrity at the cost of real people. Man, the future is cool.

I might not have guessed Shudu was fake, but man, Miquela is so fake looking as to almost not even be entering the uncanny valley

If we're citing fictional predictions that this will fulfill, I think Howard Chaykin coined the term "synthespian" in his 1983 comic book American Flagg! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Flagg!

There is Ami Yamato[1]. A 3d character youtuber. I'm actually not sure how she keeps being consistent. I imagine it is a lot of work to make these videos.

[1]: https://m.youtube.com/user/yamatoami

Instagram got 'hacked'. When a game gets hacked people stop playing. Rather than fundamentally alter reality or whatever, it's just going to accelerate migration towards high-frequency, ephemeral, video-first social.

'Social' is an adjective.

This is totally Norman Spinrad's "Little Heroes" [0]

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Little_Heroes_(novel)

Not virtual though, they are CGIs but there is an artist behind giving it its soul. Its gonna be a lot more interesting when the entire agent is computerized.

Reminds me of Eliza Cassan in Deux Ex: Human Revolution. A virtual 24/7 news anchor.

How is this different from cartoon characters?

It's not, but the software and hardware stack means a single human in a bedroom can create this instead of a small room of illustrators and keyframe artists in America and a large room of inbetweeners in Korea.

If neural network voice generation tech gets democratised in the next few years too then you could even be pushing out video content too as an entirely different personality than your actual self.

This is just plain stupid.


This is fucking orweillian

What about this is specifically Orwellian?

People have no idea what Orwellian actually means. When someone says "1984" I automatically assume they mean "Brave New World", and that they've never read either of them.

George Orwell was a fictional person

I see you might have gotten a downvote or two, but for those who don't know, George Orwell is a pen-name. The author's real name was Eric Blair.

No, George Orwell was a professional name for a real person; there's no fictional character.

There are fictional characters that are listed as authors of actual books (Richard Castle comes to mind) but a mere pen name is not a fictional person.

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