Disney is pursuing artificial intelligence more doggedly than many may have thought. According to a report from Reuters, the Mouse House has formed a task force to study how AI can be used in the company’s various divisions. The areas Disney seeks to implement AI range from “Walt Disney Studios to the company’s theme parks and engineering group, Walt Disney Imagineering, to Disney-branded television and the advertising team.” One of Reuters’ sources described AI as a way for Disney to cut some of its mammoth production budgets down to size, using the recent Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny as an example.
Disney has been tinkering with AI in Switzerland for a while, “creating ‘digital humans’ that it describes as ‘indistinguishable’ from their corporeal counterparts, or fantasy characters ‘puppeteered’ by actors.” Disney has already used some of this technology to reconstruct actors’ faces in “more than 40 films,” including Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, but another source tells Reuters this is only intended to “augment special effects,” as opposed to replacing actors.
At the theme parks, the goal is to use AI to “enhance customer support or create novel interactions;” Disney has already dabbled in this, as there is a robot version of Baby Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 that will “interact with guests” once AI can allow it to “learn without being programmed” and “recognize and navigate objects in its environment.” The first instance of Disney allowing AI to interact with the public was at the soon-to-be-defunct Star Wars Galactic Starcruiser hotel, which featured a “cabin droid” named D3-09 that “answered questions on a video screen and learned and changed based on conversations with guests.”
No wonder everybody is freaking out and going on strike. I know there’s a lot of talk about money and streaming and whatnot, but I’m convinced this is what really concerns the writers and actors. My first thought upon reading the headline was that Disney formed this AI task force as a negotiating tactic, sort of like a warning shot: “Cut the shit and get back to work or it’s Ultron time.” However, the task force was put together before the strikes began, and clearly, Disney has been exploring AI much longer than that. But I wonder if the timing of this piece is related to the strikes; the sources – who are either working for Disney or have done so in the past – talk very favorably about AI and support Disney’s efforts. Why would they do anything to hamper their employers? Maybe leaking the story is the shot. Added to that, Disney has eleven job openings for people with experience in AI. It’s hard to believe they aren’t at least partially trying to intimidate the strikers. Perhaps it’s now a question of who can hold out longer, or how quickly Disney can develop AI that’s able to do all those things it pinkie-swears it doesn’t want to do.