Aug 8, 2023
The colossal entertainment empire, Walt Disney Co. (DIS.N), is leading the charge into the future with the formation of an exclusive task force dedicated to unraveling the myriad of possibilities that artificial intelligence (AI) holds. This strategic move transpired even as tension continues to mount in Hollywood, with writers and actors fiercely advocating against over-reliance on AI in the cinematic universe.
Disney's AI initiative was set into motion prior to the Hollywood writers’ strike. Their vision is two-fold: harness the power of AI within the company, and also synergize with startups propelling this transformative technology, as disclosed by sources to Reuters. To underline the company's AI commitment, there are currently 11 job vacancies spanning from Walt Disney Studios to its iconic theme parks, all specifically seeking expertise in AI or machine learning.
Notably, the company’s pivot to advanced technology isn't just limited to films. The job descriptions hint at an ambitious plan to craft an advanced AI-driven advertising system, possibly revolutionizing the way Disney connects with its global audience. However, Disney remains tight-lipped on the subject, declining any comments when approached.
Inside voices suggest a clear-cut rationale behind Disney's AI obsession. A company insider passionately argued the urgency for legacy media giants like Disney to adapt to AI or face the impending risk of becoming outdated. AI could be Hollywood's golden ticket, potentially slashing the exorbitant production costs associated with blockbuster films such as "Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny" or "The Little Mermaid." Over time, AI could manifest significant cost efficiencies.
Beyond the silver screen, Disney's iconic theme parks also stand to benefit from AI, promising enhanced guest experiences. Reflecting on this, a former Disney Imagineer brought attention to Project Kiwi, a technological marvel that employs machine learning to bring to life Baby Groot, a character from "Guardians of the Galaxy." Empowered by AI, this tiny robot mimics Groot's unique personality and movements, with future ambitions to interact with park guests directly.
Yet, as promising as AI appears, it has ignited fierce debates in Hollywood, particularly amongst writers and actors who view it as a potential job-stealer. This contentious issue sits at the heart of ongoing contract talks with influential entities like the Screen Actors Guild and the Writers Guild of America.
Disney, for its part, treads cautiously. The company meticulously highlighted the hard work of visual artists who took three labor-intensive years to "de-age" Harrison Ford in the recent "Indiana Jones" installment, steering the conversation away from AI's role.
A look back in time illustrates Disney's long-standing commitment to pioneering technological innovations. The debut of "Steamboat Willie" in 1928, the first synchronized sound cartoon, was just the beginning. A sweep through the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office records reveals a staggering 4,000-plus patents held by Disney, each applied across their diverse portfolio.
Disney's leadership, spearheaded by CEO Bob Iger, has always emphasized technological innovation. Upon taking the helm in 2005, Iger made technology one of his core focal points. This vision came to fruition in 2008 when Disney forged research partnerships with premier global institutions like the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich and Carnegie Mellon University.
Some groundbreaking innovations stemming from this commitment include the "Magic Bench," a mixed-reality marvel developed by Disney's U.S. research group, and "digital humans," indistinguishable from real-life humans, crafted by Disney Research in Switzerland.
The vast application of AI across Disney's expansive universe is evident in attractions such as the D3-09 cabin droid, an AI-driven character in the Star Wars Galactic Star Cruiser hotel. Scott Trowbridge, an Imagineering executive, underscored the innovation by praising its interactivity and advanced technology.
Disney's AI expedition is emblematic of its constant evolution to stay ahead of the curve. As Hao Li, CEO of Pinscreen, reflected on his collaboration with Disney, it becomes evident that the entertainment juggernaut remains committed to leveraging advanced technology for enriching experiences across all its platforms. Whether on the silver screen, in theme parks, or elsewhere, the magic of Disney continues to evolve with AI as its latest spell.