Members of AI girl band Eternity. Photo: @kpopceara/ Twitter
But the fact that the AI members cannot meet their fans in reality might be a huge stumbling block for them, given that active communication is often the key to the success of K-pop stars. Concerning this problem, Park said that she has been musing about a number of ways to connect the AI members with their followers.
“We are planning to make use of diverse technologies such as augmented reality (AR) and holograms to help Eternity build rapport with its fans,” she said.
The merits of AI-powered groups
The emergence of Eternity is just one example of AI’s growing presence in the K-pop scene. There are more groups like Aespa that seek to gain an upper hand in the market by utilising this cutting-edge technology to enrich fans’ experience.
Aespa in their new single Next Level. Photo: @aespapicss_/Twitter
Last November, SM Entertainment, the K-pop powerhouse representing legions of big-name stars like Exo and NCT, showcased the new girl group Aespa, which debuted with the unprecedented concept of including virtual avatars. The rookie band comprises four human members – Karina, Winter, Giselle and Ningning – and their avatars, the quartet’s digital selves that were created through AI. During an online press conference in May, Karina said that Aespa was an “eight-piece band”, referring the digital entities as actual members of Aespa.
“Aespa is an innovative group transcending the boundary between reality and virtual reality,” SM’s founder/producer Lee Soo-man said during the World Cultural Industry Forum (WCIF) in October, about a month before the launch of Aespa. “The band is reflective of our future, which will revolve around celebrities and avatars. Aespa’s human members and their virtual avatars will interact with each other through digital means, collaborate and grow up together.”
Aespa perform on stage during the 30th High1 Seoul Music Awards on January 31, 2021, in Seoul, South Korea. Photo: The Sports Seoul via Getty Images
Aespa has been making waves on the global music scene. The music video for its debut track Black Mamba surpassed 100 million views on YouTube only 51 days after its release, becoming the first debut music video by a K-pop act to pull off this feat. It also took home several rookie of the year awards last year.
Before Aespa, there were other AI-powered acts like K/DA, a virtual girl group consisting of four female characters from the popular online game League of Legends (LoL), which debuted with the single Pop/Stars in 2018. As of Monday, June 7, the music video for the song garnered a whopping 440 million views on YouTube. Apoki, which was initially a virtual influencer, kicked off its singing career in February, putting out its first single Get It Out. Its music video has passed the 610,000 views mark.
But why are people immersing themselves in producing AI-powered singers? The reasons are simple. AI singers enjoy eternal youth, but are free from scandals and are able to work around the clock. For producers, they are not only efficient, but also less risky.
A member of K/DA, a virtual girl group consisting of four female characters from the popular online game League of Legends (LoL). Photo: @COMP7EX/Twitter
“Without physical and emotional constraints, virtual singers are easier to control and are more widely available to fans who want to engage with their favourite idols in many different forms,” Lee Hye-jin, a clinical assistant professor at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism of the University of Southern California, said.
She elaborated, “The K-pop industry has invested a lot in new technologies for the last couple of years. Labels like JYP, YG, and Hybe have invested in the avatar app company Zepeto, and have used the platform for virtual fan meetings or other forms of content. SM has also invested in virtual technology and successfully integrated it into Beyond Live, an online concert streaming service. Likewise, virtual singers will enable K-pop companies to create a new revenue stream and expand their intellectual property.”
Blackpink’s avatars on Zepeto. Photo: @NindaFebriani4/Twitter
Kang Shin-kyu, a researcher at the Korea Broadcast Advertising Corporation (Kobaco), highlighted the advancement of technology as a contributing factor to the popularity of virtual stars.
“Technology today can offer a more realistic digital environment and more quality digital content for people,” he said. “Against this backdrop, more people, especially millennials and generation Z – defined by some scholars as people born between 1980 and 2010 – have been attracted to these AI-powered acts. The Covid-19 pandemic is also playing a big role, as a growing number of people are looking for a more entertaining digital experience. Hence, it seems that the number of virtual stars is likely to increase at least for a while.”
But Professor Lee underscored that virtual stars will only be used to complement human idols rather than replacing them, as they cannot form emotional bonds with their fans.
“Even though AI idols are given unique personalities, those personalities are artificially manufactured and contrived, based on what their creators think the audience’s tastes are,” she said. “How can fans like or foster a meaningful relationship with entities that do not actually exist?”
Ethical and copyright issues should not be overlooked
BTS on Zepeto. Photo: @bts_officials7/Twitter
AI-powered groups might have offered a new direction, but they pose significant challenges at the same time.
Numerous people are anxious that virtual singers might fall prey to deepfake porn, digitally altered pornographic videos and images that replace the face of the subjects with someone else’s. Several celebrities have turned out to be the victims of this technology, and some believe that virtual avatars are more likely to be exploited, given that they are not human. Although their creators say they will take stringent legal action against any law breakers, the worries are still mounting.
“The detachment of these characters from real people might encourage and justify some users to sexualise them further and use their images for pornographic purposes, without thinking of the consequences,” Lee pointed out.
A promotional image for Aespa. Photo: Handout
Kang elaborated, “In the case of Aespa, the human members share the same identities as their virtual avatars, so if their digital selves fall victim to digital sex crimes – as can be seen from the case of K/DA – the human members are also likely to be affected.”
Hypersexualization is another big issue, experts say.
“Currently, we are witnessing the imposition of stricter gender norms on female AI-powered idols. The avatar members of Aespa, for instance, are more sexually stylised than their human counterparts,” Lee said.
Kang echoed this sentiment, saying, “The virtual avatars reflect the particular physical features that the industry values.”
A promotional shot of Aespa. Photo: Handout
He also touched on copyright issues concerning Aespa, asking a series of thought-provoking questions.
“How will SM Entertainment deal with these avatars once the human members terminate their contract with the company? Do they still own the digital entities even if the human members do not want them to be used in the future? This is why I think the producers need to be more considerate about the human members and their futures.”
This article originally appeared on Korea Times