Even as Hollywood writers and performers fight to limit the industry’s exploitation of the technology, Walt Disney has established a task force to investigate artificial intelligence and how it can be deployed across the entertainment giant.
The group was established earlier this year, ahead of the Hollywood writers’ strike, and is aiming to create internal AI applications as well as collaborate external startups, three individuals told Reuters.
Disney currently offers 11 job vacancies looking for applicants with experience in artificial intelligence or machine learning, demonstrating their interest in the field.
The positions span practically every division of the business, from Walt Disney Studios to its theme parks and engineering division, Walt Disney Imagineering, to Disney-branded television and the advertising team, which, according to the job postings, is working to develop a “next-generation” AI-powered ad system.
A representative for Disney declined to comment.
Due to the sensitivity of the matter, one of the sources—an inside advocate—said that legacy media businesses like Disney must embrace AI or risk becoming obsolete.
This proponent views artificial intelligence (AI) as one way to aid in containing the growing expenses of film and television production, which can reach $300 million for a major film release like “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny” or “The Little Mermaid.” For such expenses to even break even, box office revenues must be enormous. Over time, cost reductions would be felt, the source claimed.
According to the second person and a former Disney Imagineer who declined to be named because he was not permitted to talk publicly, AI may improve customer service or offer unique interactions for the company’s parks sector.
The former Imagineer cited Project Kiwi, which employed machine-learning methods to develop Baby Groot, a miniature, roaming robot that imitates the behavior and motions of the “Guardians of the Galaxy” character.
Its vision systems are informed by machine learning, the field of artificial intelligence that enables computers to learn without being explicitly taught, allowing it to recognize and navigate objects in its environment. In the future, Baby Groot will engage with visitors, according to the former Imagineer.
In Hollywood, where writers and performers see AI as an existential danger to their jobs, AI has turned into a powder bomb. The Screen Actors Guild and the Writers Guild of America, both of which are on strike, are negotiating a new contract, and it is a key point of contention.
Disney has exercised caution when addressing AI in public. The visual effects supervisors for the most recent “Indiana Jones” film highlighted the arduous work of more than 100 artists who spent three years trying to “de-age” Harrison Ford so that the octogenarian actor could look like a younger version of himself in the first few minutes of the movie.
Since its inception, Disney has made investments in new technology. It launched “Steamboat Willie” in 1928, the first animated film with a synchronized soundtrack. A search of the data kept by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office revealed that it currently possesses more than 4,000 patents with applications in theme parks, movies, and merchandising.
When he was originally appointed CEO in 2005, Bob Iger, who is currently serving in his second term as Disney’s CEO, listed the adoption of technology as one of his three top goals.
Three years later, the business unveiled a significant R&D partnership with leading technological universities from around the globe, sponsoring labs at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich and Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Pittsburgh lab was shut down in 2018.
The “Magic Bench” mixed reality technology was created by Disney’s American research team and enables users to interact in real time with a virtual character on screen without the use of special goggles.
According to its website, Disney Research has been investigating AI, machine learning, and visual computing in Switzerland. It has spent the last ten years building “digital humans” that are, in its words, “indistinguishable” from their physical counterparts, or fictional characters that are “puppeteered” by actors.
An insider with knowledge of the situation claims that this technology is utilized to enhance digital effects rather than take the place of real actors.
Its Medusa performance capture system, which has been utilized in more than 40 movies, including Marvel Entertainment’s “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” has been used to recreate actors’ faces without using conventional motion-capture methods.
One executive who has worked with Disney claimed, “AI research at Disney goes back a very long time and revolves around all the things you see being discussed today: Can we have something that helps us make movies, games, or conversational robots inside theme parks that people can talk to?”
Hao Li, the CEO and co-founder of Pinscreen, a Los Angeles-based business that develops AI-driven virtual avatars, said that from 2006 to 2010, while he was a student in Zurich, he collaborated with Disney’s lab on numerous research publications.
According to Li, a former research lead at Industrial Light & Magic, which is owned by Disney, “they basically do research on anything based on performance capture of humans, creating digital faces.” Disney entities will use some of these strategies.
The D3-09 cabin droid in the Star Wars Galactic Starcruiser hotel, which answered questions on a video screen and learned and changed based on conversations with visitors, was one of Disney Imagineering’s earliest attempts at an AI-driven character experience last year.
At the time, Imagineering executive Scott Trowbridge remarked, “Not only is she a great character to interact with and always available in your cabin, which I think is very cool, behind the scenes, it’s a very cool piece of technology.”