February 27th, 2024


Algorithms can't replace Hollywood yet. Just ask AI Seinfeld

 Cecilia D'Anastasio

By Cecilia D'Anastasio Bloomberg

Published November 20, 2023

Algorithms can't replace Hollywood yet. Just ask AI Seinfeld


Artificial intelligence may someday upend the entertainment business. But so far, in early experiments on YouTube and Twitch, video makers are mostly rivaling one particular Hollywood tradition - creating overhyped flops.

Witness the trajectory of AI Seinfeld.

In December 2022, an intriguing parody of the hit sitcom Seinfeld debuted on Twitch, the popular livestreaming site owned by Amazon.com Inc. From the start, the creators of Nothing, Forever noted that their animated satire would be "a show about nothing," providing "new content" every minute of every day "generated via machine learning and AI algorithms."

With curiosity about new AI capabilities running high, the show's debut generated plenty of headlines. Before long, some 9,000 live viewers were tuning in and watching colorful, blocky versions of Seinfeld-esque characters acting out inscrutable, AI-crafted scripts. In February, Twitch banned the channel for making transphobic jokes in violation of community guidelines. A couple weeks later the show returned.

In the months that followed, interest from viewers faded fast. During one recent stretch in October, just 30 people watched as the show's Kramer-like character continually walked into a fridge. In sharp contrast to the widespread fear of AI in Hollywood, Nothing, Forever now looks less like a new and threatening competitor to the traditional entertainment status quo - and more like a fading gimmick. The creators did not respond to requests for comment.

"The initial popularity of such shows was a function of their novelty, rather than their quality," said Mihaela Mihailova, an assistant professor at San Francisco State University's School of Cinema. "The first wave of AI-generated productions has been overwhelmingly glitchy, visually and narratively awkward, stylistically derivative and sometimes even offensive."

AI Seinfeld isn't the only one struggling.

Over the past year, a slew of AI-driven shows have popped up on Twitch, covering a range of topics and formats. On Ask_Jesus, viewers can interact with an AI bot modeled on the teachings of Jesus Christ. On TrumpOrBiden2024, voters can watch synthetic debates between AI-versions of the two leading presidential candidates. On AI_Sponge247, people can submit topics for new AI-spun adventures featuring the animated stars of SpongeBob SquarePants.

By and large, even if the AI-generated shows feel novel, they are largely unwatched. Concurrent viewership for Twitch's top four, AI-generated channels is currently down, on average, 94% from peaks in the spring, according to analysis of data from TwitchTracker.

A similar trend has played out on Alphabet Inc.'s YouTube. For months, various channels have begun pumping out fully AI-generated content like "Random Daily Facts" or top-10 lists of movies. A recent investigation by the BBC described how AI-generated YouTube videos are "spreading disinformation disguised as STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math) content" in over 20 languages. But despite dozens of Google search results instructing readers on how to create AI video generators for YouTube, the majority of these AI-created offerings aren't widely popular, a Bloomberg review found.

On Tuesday, YouTube released new guidelines requiring disclosure when videos include generative AI.

To date, the first wave of flops have done little to dampen the market for AI in entertainment and media, which Grand View Research Inc., has estimated will reach nearly $100 billion by 2030. Many experts are predicting that it's just a matter of time before AI technology significantly impacts movie and TV scripts, on-screen performances by actors and the voices of video-game characters.

Restrictions over how AI will be used in movies and film was a final sticking point in the protracted negotiations between the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers and the SAG-AFTRA actors union, whose strike ended on Nov. 9. Even after the rapprochement, anxiety over AI continues to run high among Hollywood's creative class.

Days after the end of the strike, actor Justine Bateman, who served as an adviser to the union on AI matters, jumped on X to slam the terms of the final agreement. "Bottom line we are in for a very unpleasant era for actors and crew," she wrote.

Meanwhile, budding AI-auteurs are experimenting with more promising use cases. In 2021, YouTuber Douglas Scott Wreden, known as DougDoug, initially started using AI to make intentionally "bad" content. One time, he let AI write his LinkedIn profile. The results, he said in a recent interview, were "deranged," but also entertaining. His YouTube video about the saga went on to tally 4.6 million views.

When ChatGPT launched in late 2022, Wreden embraced it. In subsequent videos, he has used the technology to elect an AI bot as mayor of a virtual town and attempted to pass a real college history exam using AI as his tutor. He's also written programs allowing him to interface with AI-generated characters that reply back to him in videos as if they are real, comically unhinged people.

"AI is a tool that creative people can use to create new things," he said. "But ultimately what makes it entertaining is the human imagining entertaining experiences."

One AI-driven Twitch channel that has remained in vogue is Neuro-Sama - an AI-generated anime girl who interacts with viewers through a chat. Nearly a year after debuting, roughly 5,000 people at a time routinely show up to watch her play video games and occasionally sing.

"AI influencers will be a huge thing in the future," said Maral Moghadasi, a Twitch streamer and volunteer for the Singularity Group, a tech incubator. "Eventually, I think it will be hard for people to differentiate whether you're looking at a real person or AI."

In the short term, AI's best hope for impressing audiences beyond the influencer zone may be to capitalize on one inherent advantage over the unmechanized competition. A lot of viewers tend to judge AI on a curve.

"When the machine comes up with an almost decent joke you feel like you've witnessed history in the making," said game developer Paolo Pedercini, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University. "It's like seeing a child coming up with their first pun. It can be endearing, and novel, and profound and genuinely funny. But you don't compare it to the joke made by a professional comedian."