Over the pandemic I became a fan of Korean pop music also known as KPOP. I’m sure many of you have heard of BTS at the very least, the 7-member boy group that has received many awards and achieved worldwide fame. The KPOP industry is worth billions of dollars, in 2019 it had an export value of 756 million dollars, and it has only been increasing since then. As a part of various online KPOP communities I have had the chance to listen to several KPOP groups and artists and I have found myself interested in girl groups especially.
For me what is most interesting about KPOP is the industry’s connection with and absorption of all the latest technologies. It’s fascinating the rate at which there is an overlap between the newest tech and the KPOP industry. The pandemic did not stop any concerts or fan meets instead they were immediately shifted online. When the entire world came to a stop due to the pandemic, the KPOP industry continued to work. Almost every single major artist held (paid for) online concerts that were streamed to thousands of people in the comfort of their homes and to thousands more like me who watched it for free thanks to the generous streamers. Not only that’s but artists also continued to meet with their fans through one-on-one video calls instead of the usually in-person fan signings.
While it is not possible to talk about the entire industry or even all my favorite groups in one post, I do want to bring up the latest trend in the KPOP industry. The introduction of AI technology.
The 4-member girl-group AESPA debuted by SM-entertainment on 17th November 2020, introduced this newest technology on a massive scale. SM-entertainment is one of the founding companies of KPOP and also home to my favorite KPOP groups-Red Velvet, Girls Generation, EXO and SHINEE (tldr: I am obsessed with all 4 groups). So obviously AESPAs debut was one that I was both anticipating and absolutely intrigued by because the 4-member group would be joined by AI versions of the members in the very first music video.
The first single black mamba was an interesting mix of both the artists and their AI versions. What’s even more interesting is that this single was a sort of introduction to SM-entertainments plans to create a larger SM cinematic universe (like the MCU), which would connect the lore that has been a part of every single group that they have debuted.
AESPA’s music video was brilliantly done and I’ll admit that the song was stuck in my head for weeks. The AI were especially intriguing. This is not the first time AIs have been used in KPOP, the group K/DA, debuted 2018, was an entirely virtual group made up of versions of the different characters from the video game League of legends. However, AESPAs concept involved AIs made in the likeness of the artists themselves all of whom were 18-20 years old at that time. While the concept was generally well received it did raise a lot of questions about the ethics behind producing artificial characters.
Firstly, who would the AIs belong to in the event that one member left the group, or the group disbanded entirely. The AIs are at the end of the day made in complete likeness to these actual very real human girls. But would they be the artists personal property or the company’s? And does the artist get a say in how these AIs are created, what they wear or what they are used for? AESPA will soon also be releasing a virtual reality game starring their own AIs.
Secondly, since the AIs aren’t really human, they don’t come under the protection of any laws and basically nothing can be done to stop them from being sexualized or misused in other forms of media. This can encourage a host of weird behavior, that may eventually end up affecting the artists in real life as well because it blurs the boundaries between the real world and the virtual one. In an era of media where basically anything can be created with a few clicks, and where deepfakes are increasingly common, the creation of these AIs is basically readymade material that can be used for whatever its consumer intends.
These AIs also obscure the boundaries between artist and fan. Since the purpose of the introduction of such AIs is to allow the fans to have complete access to their artists and interact with them however, they wish. This AI technology is opening up a variety of new ways to increase this interaction and deepen the connection between artist and fan. AESPA is not the only group releasing content with AIs. Other groups also have video games, artist chat boxes etc. that allow fans to talk to or interact with the AI versions of their favorite artists. But for AESPA the AIs are standing right next to them, interacting with them and even getting screen time in their music videos.
The purpose of using AESPA as an example was to highlight this massive shift in the industry towards using AI in place of humans. Also, because they are a girl group, already subject to a variety of sexism, sexualization and unrealistic body standards. The girls may grow and change but their AIs will always have the perfect dainty figures, perpetually stuck in their youth. What kind of affect this shift towards using AI, along with and even in place of humans, will have on the industry, the media and the world in general, only time will tell…