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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."

Protocol | Workplace

Apple isn’t the only tech company spooked by the delta variant

Spooked by rising cases of COVID-19, many tech companies delay their office reopening.

Apple and at least two other Silicon Valley companies have decided to delay their reopenings in response to rising COVID-19 case counts.

Photo: Luis Alvarez via Getty

Apple grabbed headlines this week when it told employees it would delay its office reopening until October or later. But the iPhone maker wasn't alone: At least two other Silicon Valley companies decided to delay their reopenings last week in response to rising COVID-19 case counts.

Both ServiceNow and Pure Storage opted to push back their September return-to-office dates last week, telling employees they can work remotely until at least the end of the year. Other companies may decide to exercise more caution given the current trends.

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Allison Levitsky
Allison Levitsky is a reporter at Protocol covering workplace issues in tech. She previously covered big tech companies and the tech workforce for the Silicon Valley Business Journal. Allison grew up in the Bay Area and graduated from UC Berkeley.

As President of Alibaba Group, I am often asked, "What is Alibaba doing in the U.S.?"

In fact, most people are not aware we have a business in the U.S. because we are not a U.S. consumer-facing service that people use every day – nor do we want to be. Our consumers – nearly 900 million of them – are located in China.

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J. Michael Evans
Michael Evans leads and executes Alibaba Group's international strategy for globalizing the company and expanding its businesses outside of China.
Protocol | Workplace

Half of working parents have felt discriminated against during COVID

A new survey found that working parents at the VP level are more likely to say they've faced discrimination at work than their lower-level counterparts.

A new survey looks at discrimination faced by working parents during the pandemic.

Photo: d3sign/Getty Images

The toll COVID-19 has taken on working parents — particularly working moms — is, by now, well-documented. The impact for parents in low-wage jobs has been particularly devastating.

But a new survey, shared exclusively with Protocol, finds that among parents who kept their jobs through the pandemic, people who hold more senior positions are actually more likely to say they faced discrimination at work than their lower-level colleagues.

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Issie Lapowsky

Issie Lapowsky ( @issielapowsky) is Protocol's chief correspondent, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. She also oversees Protocol's fellowship program. 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.

Protocol | Enterprise

Alphabet goes deep into industrial robotic software with Intrinsic

If it succeeds, the gambit could help support Google Cloud's lofty ambitions in the manufacturing sector.

Alphabet is aiming to make advanced robotic technology affordable to customers.

Photo: Getty Images

Alphabet launched a new division Friday called Intrinsic, which will focus on building software for industrial robots, per a blog post. The move plunges the tech giant deeper into a sector that's in the midst of a major wave of digitization.

The goal of Intrinsic is to "give industrial robots the ability to sense, learn, and automatically make adjustments as they're completing tasks, so they work in a wider range of settings and applications," CEO Wendy Tan-White wrote in the post.

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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.

People

To combat disinformation, centralize moderation

There's more to content moderation than deplatforming.

In addition to interplatform collaboration, big tech companies would also benefit from greater collaborations with academic researchers, government agencies or other private entities, the authors argue.

Image: Twitter

Yonatan Lupu is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. Nicolás Velasquez Hernandez is a lecturer at the Elliott School of International Affairs and a postdoctoral researcher at GW's Institute for Data, Democracy and Politics.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' signing of a bill that penalizes social media companies for deplatforming politicians was yet another salvo in an escalating struggle over the growth and spread of digital disinformation, malicious content and extremist ideology. While Big Tech, world leaders and policymakers — along with many of us in the research community — all recognize the importance of mitigating online and offline harm, agreement on how best to do that is few and far between.

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