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People

Hulu deepfaked its new ad. It won’t be the last.

Expect less demand for expensive actors and studio time: Now producers are showing it's easy to use algorithms to make compelling clips.

Hulu ad

This ad is fake: Hulu used face-swapping algorithms to create its latest commercial.

GIF: Courtesy of Hulu

How do you safely shoot a commercial during a pandemic? Hulu simply decided to fake it.

The streaming service launched a new ad last weekend to publicize the restart of sports on its TV service. It features athletes such as Damian Lillard and Skylar Diggins-Smith unenthusiastically trying their hands at favorite quarantine hobbies; think painting self-portraits and baking sourdough bread.

But there was a problem: Lillard has been in the NBA's bubble in Orlando, and in-person shoots didn't seem like a good idea for the other star athletes, either. That's why Hulu shot the commercial with body doubles on an otherwise unoccupied set in Los Angeles, and then used deepfake algorithms to superimpose the faces of the stars into the resulting clip.

The deepfake algorithms were trained on footage of the athletes that was shot exclusively over Zoom, explained Hulu marketing VP Ryan Crosby. "Throughout each shoot, we captured several different facial angles including straight-to-camera, 45-degree angle, 90-degree side angle, looking up and looking down," he said. "Athletes were asked to say the vowels ('A' 'E' 'I' 'O' 'U') at each angle along with 'Hulu Has Live Sports Again.' We also recorded several different facial expressions that pertain to their specific movements and speaking lines within the spot."

Hulu worked with Sao Paulo, Brazil-based VFX studio Tribbo on the clip, which also used some still photographs of the athletes to beef up the training data for the AI algorithms. The whole production process took about six weeks, Crosby said.

Hulu isn't the first company to use AI video manipulation for its commercials during the pandemic. In April, State Farm ran a commercial that featured doctored footage of former ESPN SportsCenter anchor Kenny Mayne. In it, a much younger Mayne predicted that ESPN would air "The Last Dance" in 2020. "It's going to be lit. You don't even know what that means yet," the clip has 1998-Mayne saying.

And it's not just for high-end commercials anymore. The AI video startup Synthesia, which promises customers the ability to produce videos without actors and film crews, has seen a 10x growth in demand since the beginning of the pandemic, according to co-founder and COO Steffen Tjerrild. Synthesia's AI dubbing tech takes text input and then manipulates mouth movements of archive footage to produce custom clips, like this one.

AI will eventually do to video production what apps like Instagram filters did to photography, Tjerrild predicted. The need for companies to hire actors and book studio time will in many cases go away when they can just manipulate existing footage with the help of cloud-based algorithms. The cost savings alone could be significant enough to make this stick around even after the pandemic is over. "Allowing anyone to create videos at one hundredth of the cost and 1,000x the speed is here to stay," he said. "The quality and authenticity is only going to get better and better as this space matures."

For now, it's still possible to tell the difference between AI-produced and "real" video. "We knew the biggest fans of these athletes, and sports fans in general, would recognize the imperfections," Crosby said. That's why Hulu hinted at the trickery in its own social posts and on the social feeds of participating athletes. Lillard, for instance, told his fans on Instagram: "Why did Hulu put my face on some random guy's body? Cause I'm too busy getting buckets in the bubble to shoot commercials."

Martin Cooper with his original DynaTAC cell phone.

Photo: Ted Soqui/Getty Images

Martin Cooper helped invent one of the most consequential and successful products in history: the cell phone. And almost five decades after he made the first public cell phone call, on a 2-pound brick of a device called the DynaTAC, he's written a book about his career called "Cutting the Cord: The Cell Phone Has Transformed Humanity." In it he tells the story of the cell phone's invention, and looks at how it has changed the world and will continue to do so.

Cooper came on the Source Code Podcast to talk about his time at Motorola, the process of designing the first-ever cell phone, whether today's tech giants are monopolies and why he's bullish on the future of AI.

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David Pierce

David Pierce ( @pierce) is Protocol's editor at large. Prior to joining Protocol, he was a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, a senior writer with Wired, and deputy editor at The Verge. He owns all the phones.

Election 2020

Google says it’s fighting election lies, but its ads fund them

A new report finds that more than 1,600 brands, from Disney to Procter & Gamble, have advertisements running on sites that push pro-Trump conspiracy theories. The majority of those ads are served by Google.

Google is the most dominant player in programmatic advertising, but it has a spotty record enforcing rules for publishers.

Photo: Alex Tai/Getty Images

Shortly after November's presidential election, a story appeared on the website of far-right personality Charlie Kirk, claiming that 10,000 dead people had returned mail-in ballots in Michigan. But after publishing, a correction appeared at the top of the story, completely debunking the misleading headline, which remains, months later, unchanged.

"We are not aware of a single confirmed case showing that a ballot was actually cast on behalf of a deceased individual," the correction, which quoted Michigan election officials, read.

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Issie Lapowsky
Issie Lapowsky (@issielapowsky) is a senior reporter at Protocol, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University’s Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing. Email Issie.
Politics

In 2020, COVID-19 derailed the privacy debate

From biometric monitoring to unregulated contact tracing, the crisis opened up new privacy vulnerabilities that regulators did little to address.

Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, says the COVID-19 pandemic has become a "cash grab" for surveillance tech companies.

Photo: Lianhao Qu/Unsplash

As the coronavirus began its inexorable spread across the United States last spring, Adam Schwartz, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, worried the virus would bring with it another scourge: mass surveillance.

"A lot of really bad ideas were being advanced here in the U.S. and a lot of really bad ideas were being actually implemented in foreign countries," Schwartz said.

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Issie Lapowsky
Issie Lapowsky (@issielapowsky) is a senior reporter at Protocol, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University’s Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing. Email Issie.
People

The year our personal lives took center stage at work

2020's blurring of professional and personal boundaries exacerbated disparities, humanized leaders and put personal values front and center.

In 2020, the personal and the professional became inextricable at work.

Photo: Tom Werner/Getty Images

For those of us lucky enough to keep our jobs and privileged enough to be able to work from home, our whole selves were bared at work this year. Our homes and faces were blown up for virtual inspection. Our children's demands and crises filled our working hours, and our working mothers became schoolteachers and housewives, whether they wanted to or not. Our illnesses became vital public information, and our tragedies shared. Our work lives ate into our social lives until there was no boundary between them.

In 2020, the personal and the professional became inextricable at work. Remote work might be the most sexy 2020 trend, but for the CEOs and leaders I spoke with, the de-professionalization of work could be the most important effect on a personal level. It's the one that has caused the most harm to women in the workplace and destroyed work-life balance for basically everyone. It's also what has contributed to the majority of work-from-home Americans being more satisfied with their work lives than they were before, mostly because they feel more connected to their families, they're able to set their own schedules and they're more comfortable at home, according to a Morning Consult poll. While we can't know exactly how many and who will be going back to the office just yet, as long as there is some kind of flexible work schedule, people's personal lives will be part of their work lives and vice versa.

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Anna Kramer

Anna Kramer is a reporter at Protocol (@ anna_c_kramer), where she helps write and produce Source Code, Protocol's daily newsletter. Prior to joining the team, she covered tech and small business for the San Francisco Chronicle and privacy for Bloomberg Law. She is a recent graduate of Brown University, where she studied International Relations and Arabic and wrote her senior thesis about surveillance tools and technological development in the Middle East.

Protocol | Enterprise

How Christian Klein’s reboot of SAP’s strategy is working out

The pandemic wasn't kind to the company. But the way it's working with the major COVID-19 vaccine makers is a model for what comes next.

Christian Klein became SAP's sole CEO in April.

Photo: Picture Alliance/Getty Images

Christian Klein took over as SAP's sole CEO in April. It wasn't an ideal time to take the helm of an organization that sells expensive enterprise software.

As the spread of COVID-19 forced corporations everywhere to cut costs, one of the first places they looked was IT budgets. Specifically, companies around the world trimmed spending on back-end products, such as those offered by SAP, many of which still run via on-premise data centers.

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Joe Williams

Joe Williams is a senior reporter at Protocol covering enterprise software, including industry giants like Salesforce, Microsoft, IBM and Oracle. He previously covered emerging technology for Business Insider. Joe can be reached at JWilliams@Protocol.com. To share information confidentially, he can also be contacted on a non-work device via Signal (+1-309-265-6120) or JPW53189@protonmail.com.

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