From K-pop to salesgirls: AI goes mainstream in South Korea

By AFP   September 25, 2023 | 06:42 pm PT
From K-pop to salesgirls: AI goes mainstream in South Korea
Zaein’s face was created by a deep learning analysis of the faces of K-pop stars from over the last two decades. Photo by AFP
Her face is a deepfake. Her body belongs to a team of similar-sized actors. But she sings, reads the news and sells luxury clothes on TV, as artificial intelligence (AI) humans go mainstream in South Korea.

Meet Zaein, one of South Korea’s most active virtual humans. She was created by Pulse9, an AI company that is working to bring corporate dreams of the perfect employee to life.

Pulse9 has created digital humans for some of South Korea’s largest conglomerates, including retail group Shinsegae, with research indicating that the global market for such life-like creations could reach US$527 billion (S$720 billion) by 2030.

In South Korea, AI humans have enrolled as students at universities and interned at major companies. They appear regularly on live television, driving sell-outs of products ranging from food to luxury handbags.

But Pulse9 says this is only the beginning. It is "working on developing the technology to broaden AI human use," Ms Park Ji-eun, the company’s chief executive, told AFP.

"Virtual humans are basically capable of carrying out much of what real people do," she said, adding that the current level of AI technology means humans are still needed – for now.

The demand for AI humans in South Korea was initially driven by the K-pop industry, with the idea of a virtual idol – not prone to scandals and able to work 24/7 – proving popular with the country’s notoriously hard-driving music agencies.

But now, Pulse9 is "expanding their roles in society to show that these virtual humans aren’t just fantasy idols but can coexist with humans as colleagues and friends," Ms Park said.

K-pop face

Zaein’s face was created by a deep learning analysis – an AI method that teaches computers to process complex data – of the faces of K-pop stars from over the last two decades.

Doe-eyed with delicate features, fair skin and a willowy figure, she is brought to life by overlaying the deepfake on a human actor.

More than 10 human actors, each with different talents – from singing, dancing, acting, to reporting – help to animate Zaein, which is what makes this particular AI creation so "special", Ms Park said.

On a Monday morning, AFP met with one of the actors as she was preparing to deliver a report as Zaein on a live morning news program on South Korean broadcaster SBS.

"I think it can be good practice for people who want to become celebrities and that was what appealed to me," said the actress, who could not be named due to company policy.

A representative for Pulse9 said the identities of all the human actors are concealed, and their real faces are not shown.

Despite the strict measures to keep their profiles hidden, the actress said playing a virtual human has opened new doors.

"Typically, a lot of people in their teens and young people become K-pop idols and I am way past that age, but it is nice to be able to take on that challenge," the actress, who is in her 30s, told AFP.

"I’d love to try acting as a man if I can manage my voice well, and maybe a foreigner – something that I can’t become in real life."

Real and fake

Creating artificial humans will continue to require real people "until a really strong AI is created in (the) future which will be able to process everything by itself", Ms Park said.

The potential – and potential perils – of AI has exploded into public consciousness in recent months, ever since ChatGPT burst onto the scene at the end of 2022.

Experts around the world, including AI pioneers, have spoken out about its dangers, and several countries are seeking regulation of the powerful but high-risk invention.

But Ms Park is not concerned.

Her company is working on new virtual idols, virtual influencers, and virtual sales agents to take over customer-facing tasks for South Korean conglomerates, which are increasingly struggling with recruitment in the country due to low birth rates.

South Korea – and the world – needs better, clearer regulations on what AI can do, she said, adding that when done properly, the technology can add to "the richness of life".

The trouble, however, is that a deepfake can "make it impossible to tell what is real and fake", information security professor Kim Myuhng-joo at Seoul Women’s University told AFP.

"It is an egregious tool when used to harm others or (get) people into trouble. That is why it is becoming a problem," he added.

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