The Imagination Economy

How AI will shape the future of content creation

The Imagination Economy
Generated by Midjourney

We’re at the very beginning of a seismic shift in how content will be created. Whereas in the past most educational or entertaining content has been optimized for an audience, content is starting to be generated for the individual.

In the not so distant future, you’ll no longer waste time looking for something to watch, read, learn or even play, it will be created for you…on demand…in real time by artificial intelligence.

The Attention Economy

Over the past decade companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon have placed us at the center of the digital economy and are using a variety of techniques to collect and analyze our attention data in order to predict our interests and serve us tailored content. The more specific, the more likely it is to get and keep our attention. This increases the amount of ads we’re served or products we’ll buy. This is how money is extracted from our attention.

Netflix uses algorithms to suggest movies and TV shows based on your behavior, Amazon does the same for products. Algorithms turn out to be powerful “Attention Brokers”. They’re skilled in analyzing information, content and behavior in order to deliver a personalized experience to each user. The more accurate the algorithm, the better the experience, the more attention is paid.

The problem is that all these suggestions are still based on human-created content. This limits just how personalized the content we’re served can be. Soon there won’t be any need for human-created content, because computers will be able to create their own.

Bespoke Media

You can already see early shocking examples of this in today’s open-source AI content generators. On one side you have OpenAI’s ChatGPT, which can generate text that people are already using to code applications, have productive conversations to resolve generational trauma, to create instructions about how to remove a peanut butter and jelly sandwich from a VCR…written in the style of the King James Bible.

AI generators aren’t limited to just the written word, they have also made great leaps in generating images. Google’s DeepDream or Midjourney, can generate images in any genre, in any medium, closely approximating the ability of some of our greatest artists…in moments. AI video is already well underway.

In the near future, AI will be able to generate entire books, TV shows, movies, and even video games from scratch, tailored specifically for you. Using the same vast amounts of data the internet already has on you, AI’s will know your preferences and tastes better than you do, keeping you entertained for hours on end with personalized content of your choosing.

In the unlikely case that you don’t like where the AI’s story is going, you’ll have the ability to change it whenever you like. Want this mystery to be funnier? Make a request. Want him to end up with another love interest. Make it so. Want the protagonist to have a different gender? weight? age? belief system? Let the AI know, and it will seamlessly change the plot in realtime to better suit your desires. You won’t even have to input anything, because it will already know how you feel.

Feelings on Demand

Artists, authors, teachers, directors create experiences based on the way they think and feel. AI will generate content tailored to the way you experience things, more specifically, the way you enjoy experiencing things.

Even though you may not know what you need or want, your AI most likely will. It can scrape your social media, calendar, email, and texts, scanning for context, mood, and emotionality. Personal smart devices will enable your AI to monitor your vitals with increasing fidelity before, during and after the experience that it generates for you.

Should your entertainment or education AI sense your boredom or overstimulation, it will automatically tune your movie or lesson in real time for the optimal experience. Like a never ending “choose your own adventure” you could rewatch or reread or replay games indefinitely. Every instance of the experience, slightly different based on your current circumstances and tastes. If you felt nostalgic, you could revisit an old recording, allowing you to step into the world of a younger self.

The Cost of Imagination

AI has already proven to be a powerful tool at getting our attention, but its greatest power lies in its ability to reduce the cost of expressing our imagination. When AI begins to generate our entertainment, there will be no need for cast, crew, writers, sets, or marketing. It will all be artificially generated, rendering today’s astronomical production budgets obsolete.

If today’s revenue models for this AI tech is anything to go by, the cost of generating bespoke content may cost as much as your current streaming services. Rather than being confined to Netflix’s lackluster library, or paying for a premium service most of whose shows you don’t watch anyway, you’ll have access to an endless supply of bespoke content.

Directors and writers and teachers will still be necessary, but the way we define those roles will change. This technology will empower every one to be content creators with the full capabilities of production studios or publishing houses at our disposal.

Our AI production houses would cast the types of actors we like to watch, tell the stories we enjoy, even challenge us in ways that feel rewarding to us. This would not necessarily create some closed loop ideological knowledge bubble, cutting us off from anything beyond ourselves. No, quite the opposite. Though we may be creating for an audience of one, our AI will be drawing from a global well of minds to generate these experiences for us.

The Artists

Every piece of content we co-generate with AI could be recorded and shared like recipes. This would allow other humans — or their AI — to use them as a starting off point to create their own books, movies, or games. It would create a global marketplace of networked imagination and learning where all perspectives are valuable and accessible.

When we have tools that can help us all express ourselves across a host of mediums on a professional level, our imagination becomes the product. This would be a powerful motivator for us to invest in our imaginations. Learning would become central to our ability to create, and the delivery of that education would be custom tailored to our mind. In other words, you would have a private teacher who knows how to engage you and happens to know everything.

Educational analysis paralysis becomes a thing of the past as AI gauges what your strengths, curiosities, and knowledge gaps are. It generates entire educational experiences, which are sourced from this unlimited library of content authored by minds across the world. This library of the imagination would serve as AI’s medium to synthesize experiences in endlessly optimized permutations, which it later feeds back into the same library. So where does this leave the creatives and the knowledge workers?

Body of Knowledge

Though AI will undoubtedly render many jobs obsolete, it continues to be limited by a very human boundary that it may never be able to cross: Corporeality.

We’re already seeing the rise of digital influencers/pop stars with huge followings. One of these, Hatsune Miku “sound of the future,” has been the opening act for Lady Gaga, sold out entire stadiums for their concerts, and boasts a song catalog of hundreds of thousands of songs in multiple languages.

AI will soon be able to generate individual virtual actors at scale that are indistinguishable from real people. An entire population of compelling virtual beings will be spawned by our needs and desires. Though these digital golems will be supportive companions, customer support reps, teachers, and so on, they’ll remain disembodied for a very long time.

No matter how engrossing a custom game, lecture, movie, dreamy avatar may be, we will eventually have to attend to our physical needs in the real world. This is where we eat, sleep, wash, work. Most importantly of all, this is where we fully connect with each other.

If it’s anything that pandemic has taught us is that virtual relationships do not replace the real thing. For two years, we experienced what it was like to have our three dimensional reality largely flattened into the two dimensions of our screens. Though it worked for a time, most of us came to find it unbearably isolating.

There is something about physical togetherness that is a fundamental requirement for our wellbeing, not to mention our survival as a species. Creating the conditions for better togetherness may prove to be one of the greatest opportunities afforded to us by AI.

Natural Intelligence

AIs lack the ability to understand the human experience and emotion. The lack of this understanding greatly limits AI’s creative capabilities. At best it can generate things based on patterns. Those patterns come from us. In other words, AI needs us as a muse. In this context, AI will continue to need us as long as we continue to need each other.

It’s unlikely that AI will experience unemployment, illness, puberty, heartbreak, abandonment, relief, prejudice, forgiveness, laughter, from within the confines and context of an aging biological organism such as us. These types of experiences however are what define us. It would require deeply questionable morals — not to mention staggering resources — to accurately recreate — and then subject — a non-human entity to the felt human experience.

Until AI can experience the world like us, it won’t be able to fully meet our needs. There is an entire dimension of reality where we will remain left to our own devices. This gap between artificial and natural reality is likely to surface demands that will create new markets and industries that require the odd qualifications that will remain uniquely human.

The Great Collaboration

There are three ways we can use AI.

In the longer term, it may be best not to think about how we can use AI, but rather how to collaborate with it, to extend it the same courtesy that inspires cooperation between us. The golden rule applies. In the meantime, we can add this to the list of immediate challenges we need to overcome to unlock the virtuous potential of humanity with AI.

If we can do that — and granted, that’s a big “if” — then it’s hard to imagine what wonders the collaboration between our two intelligences is capable of.

Current developments paint a picture of a future where AI can help us not only push our imagination further than it has ever gone, but also potentially express ourselves in ways that were not possible before. The ability to fully express ourselves — let alone the freedom to do so — continues to be the privilege of those not struggling to survive. Through automation and augmentation, AI holds the potential to elevate global society to a place where survival becomes less and less of a barrier.

We have never lived in a world where the majority of us are not spending most of our lives struggling to simply put food on the table. The goal is not to rid ourselves of challenges, just to greatly expand the scope and vision of what we consider to be challenging. When survival work becomes unnecessary, we’ll have the opportunity to discover what is truly meaningful beyond trying to survive. It’s a paradigm shift that no species has experienced before.

We may return to wonder and work towards solving the same great mysteries as our ancestors. The difference being, that we will now be able to wonder at scale. No longer struggling to keep the great night out, an entire species can dedicate their life to unlocking what is possible together.

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Ryder Carroll

Creator of the Bullet Journal®. NYT Best-selling author and digital product designer, living in Brooklyn, NY.