April 1, 2023

The popularity of ‘Nothing, Forever’ could be an indication that there are grave problems with how we consume our media

The phrase “powered by AI” has become one of the top pieces of jargon used both in the corporate world and around the Internet at large.

Following the breakout successes of artificial intelligence image and text generators there were fears that AI would replace entire professions, all the while building its power on the work of humans who had gone before it. For some time, the industry felt relatively safe, believing that no AI could create such a complex creative, technical and relatable project as a film or a TV show production.

That was until “Nothing, Forever” happened. “Nothing, Forever” is a sitcom, streaming on Twitch in real time, made entirely using AI tools for both text and video. Its creators have said that it takes heavy inspiration from the 1989-1998 series Seinfeld, in both concept and rough character design. And its popularity was a bit of a surprise for everyone.

The viewers did not come for the stunning visuals. It is 3D animated, very low-resolution and has a somewhat retro style, so it’s not a pretty picture. Character lines are not edited or moderated, apart from the internal moderation tools of the GPT-3 AI language model, and interactions are often nonsensical. One character can ask a question, and the other’s reply will have nothing to do with that question. So if it is not pretty and it is not well written, why do people flock in the thousands to watch it?

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Are people so fed up with constant reboots, remakes and the general milking of franchises to the last cent, that they would watch anything that is new, even if it’s objectively badly made? Have our standards of sunk so low that watching a poorly written and equally poorly animated show is a good way to spend your time? 

If the worst is to be feared, then yes. Not too long ago the AI image generators were very basic and laughable, and the Black Mirror episodes of the time, with societies succumbing to technology, were scary but considered too extreme an exaggeration of reality. A few years later we find ourselves in a situation very reminiscent of the very thing we thought impossible – people watching an endless, meaningless show with no story and no purpose, created entirely by machines. 

With AI tools developing rapidly and receiving enormous amounts of investment, there is no doubt that it will soon be possible to create much more believable works of fiction, and a large part of people’s cultural life will transform into a lab rat-like experience of “press the button to receive allocated amount of your generated entertainment, adjusted for you by the algorithm”. Most of us feel regret when our favorite shows end or get canceled, but this “endless” alternative seems to be very to consider.

But there is still hope that human history and nature will repeat. Remember when everyone thought the virtual-reality metaverse would be the next big thing? It, too, was a hot buzzword. Investments were in, people were getting ready for a cyberpunk VR life. In the end, it didn’t happen. It didn’t even make a significant splash, and the horrible screenshots from Mark Zuckerberg’s Metaverse have seemingly sealed its fate for now. 

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The same thing might happen with AI as an entertainment tool. Sure, it has its uses, and they will be explored and refined as time passes. But this infatuation with a procedurally generated sitcom might turn out to be another “flavor of the month” that will depart the mainstream as soon as the next contender arrives on the scene.

Nothing, Forever” even showed that it was not without a typical human fault – due to the aforementioned lack of extra moderation and the show airing “as is,” the stream was temporarily banned for 14 days on Twitch for a transphobic line voiced during its standup segment. At the time of writing, the suspension had not been lifted. It will be interesting to see if viewership will remain as high as it was before, or if the audience has moved on already.

After all, “Nothing, Forever” should go down in history as a milestone in technical advancement. Nothing like this was ever made before, and its creators deserve all the credit they get. Perhaps though, the show’s significance is to do with what it says about the future. 

There is no doubt that the coming years will see change in both societal attitudes and legal frameworks to accommodate AI art. The question is whether human artists will step up and prove that there is still no replacement for the human soul in art.

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