Boston Dynamics’ Spot robots is an entertainment superstar. Don’t believe me? Check out its various appearances on YouTube and you’ll quickly change your mind. A Spot launch video from last year gained 6.5 million views. A video of Spot dancing to Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk” racked up almost 6.8 million. A video of one Spot robot opening a door for another got 34.4 million views. How many other people on the planet can claim those kinds of numbers? Kanye West walking into a street sign only got 8.4 million views.
It was only ever going to be so long, then, before Spot went Hollywood. No, everyone’s favorite quadruped robot hasn’t bought a house in the Hollywood Hills, taken to shopping on Melrose, or started live-streaming itself singing John Lennon’s “Imagine” during coronavirus lockdown. Instead, it’s gotten an agent.
Called the A.I.gency (get it?), that agent is the brainchild of a couple of enterprising 33-year-old viral marketing gurus (they’ve created videos for NASA) and budding roboticists, Forest Gibson and Jared Cheshier. Launched this month, the A.I.gency claims to be the world’s first talent agency for robots, as enticing a pitch as any likely to land in your inbox right now. The business promises to do for “robot actors” and their creators what talent agents have been doing for human performers for years. Namely, to pair them up with producers, while taking a small cut of any proceeds generated.
“Talent agencies are all about pairing the right roles to the right talent,” Gibson told Digital Trends. “They’re the mediators who help to try to identify and facilitate these kinds of interactions.”
While there is probably a business out there to match real-world problems with the requisite robotics solution, the A.I.gency isn’t that. Its bionic eye is set firmly on the glitzier end of the robotic spectrum. “Our focus is on entertainment,” Gibson said. “That’s where we see the biggest opportunity right now, given the current state of the industry and the current state of technology.”
Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that an advertising agency has a great idea for an ad in which a lovable robot tries and fails to paint a fence, but teaches a photogenic family a valuable lesson about laughter and securing the right contract decorators in the process. Said ad execs could, so the idea goes, phone up the A.I.gency and lay out their requirements. Gibson and Cheshier will then flip through their Rolodex, find the right robot for the job, and proceed to set up the appearance.
And all without having to worry about the demands of flesh-and-blood pampered A-listers in the process!
Robots have been capturing the public’s imagination for decades. Although stories about artificial humans typically trace back to the Golem of Jewish folklore, the word “robot” was first formulated by the Czech playwright Karel Čapek in his 1921 play “R.U.R. – Rossum’s Universal Robots.” Since then, fictitious machine intelligence has been an omnipresent fixture in our entertainment. So, too, have real robots, particularly in recent decades as the technology has become more robust, ubiquitous, and began taking its first shaky steps out of the realm of pure science fiction and into science fact.
At the same time, tech companies have begun to realize the benefits of savvy media marketing when it comes to raising their perception in the eyes of the public. The 1997 Deep Blue computer chess match against a world champion and the 2011 triumph of the Watson computer winning the game show Jeopardy racked up millions of dollars of publicity for IBM. Its reputation as a leading artificial intelligence company was bolstered by the public showcases of its technology in action.
Robots are intrinsically more marketable than a supercomputer.
It worked out well for TV companies, too. Ratings soared when Watson took on two of Jeopardy’s greatest champions, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. A few years later, more than 200 million people watched online as Google DeepMind’s AlphaGo took on and beat Go champion Lee Sedol in a series of games in Seoul, South Korea.
Robots are intrinsically more marketable than a supercomputer. Is it, therefore, any wonder that talent agents would be sniffing around looking for an opportunity to be part of this fast-growing business? In his scholarly history of the talent agent, Hidden Talent: The Emergence of Hollywood Agents, author Tom Kemper describes the rise of the Hollywood agent during the early years of the movie industry.
In 1925, Kemper writes, there existed less than 20 genuine talent agencies advertising their services in Hollywood directories. By 1933, Film Daily Yearbook listed more than 60 Hollywood talent agencies and a further 20 in New York. The spike reflected the growing consolidation of the movie industry as it transitioned from a fragmented mixture of chancers and dreamers into, well, a real industry. “The relative absence of agents in Hollywood in the early 1920s suggests a general perception that the movie industry lacked the elements required for an agency to thrive, namely, central organization and predictable business strategies and operations.”
This is where the robotics industry might well be considered today. Top-tier talent like Boston Dynamics’ Spot and its humanoid counterpart Atlas is starting to emerge, along with increasingly ubiquitous machines like Starship Technologies’ delivery bots or the over 30 million unit-selling Roomba robot vacuum cleaner. But in many ways we’re still at the start of this particular journey. Robots lurk more on the horizon than on our doorstep. For companies in this space, many have the tech sorted; they’re now just waiting to find the business model to support them. Why not become entertainment stars in the meantime?
Gibson and Cheshier see their role as being to help producers or creatives understand exactly what modern robots are capable of, and therefore hope they might fit into their work.
“The expectations that people have for robots are kind of off from what their capabilities actually are currently,” Jared Cheshier told Digital Trends. “We’re still discovering exactly what their capabilities are, and they’re very different than what people’s intuition [suggests]. The things that are difficult for robots are different than the things you think would be difficult for them, and the things that are easy for them can sometimes be surprisingly [complex.]”
In some cases, they might be able to arrange for a robot to make an appearance at a live event or in a commercial. In others, the robots might have other uses as part of a production.
“If you look at the most recent ‘live action’ Lion King movie, they shot that whole thing in virtual reality with robots,” Cheshier said. “They had drones flying through a warehouse, doing shots on virtual cameras, with actors. If you imagine Spot as a working platform in that production, those are the types of things that are real opportunities for folks experimenting with this spatial computing technology.”
The duo goes further than simply orchestrating deals. They are robot wranglers as well as robot agents. Nobody expects Tom Cruise’s agent to turn up on day one of shooting and to tell Cruise how to play a particular scene. But Gibson and Cheshier, both experienced in robotics, will oversee the necessary coding so that Spot does exactly what its (potentially non-technical) creative directors want.
“One of the things that’s really cool is [that Boston Dynamics has] this software development kit that allows people to create things on top of the Spot platform,” Cheshier said. “What we’re doing is we’re utilizing those capabilities in the platform to be able to create these different scenarios.”
At present, the A.I.gency only has a few robots on its books. (These are not exclusive deals, meaning that companies like Boston Dynamics are free to negotiate their own deals as well.)
“Those are kind of our marquee talents,” Gibson said, referring to the Spot robots. “But we do have other support actors and supporting cast and crew that involves things like the DJI Robo Master, which is this little ground-base robot with omnidirectional wheels. We’ve actually found it’s a really great low-to-the-ground camera operator. Then we have the Skydio 2 [drone], which has amazing cameras as well as this autonomous navigation that can automatically follow a character and actor through the world.”
As with any talent agent, however, they’re looking to get others on their books. As word gets out about the A.I.gency and the opportunity that it presents, both Gibson and Cheshier hope that they will be able to broker deals with other robots (of which there is certainly no shortage) looking to increase their presence. By speaking the language of both engineers and marketers, they believe that they are perfectly positioned to take advantage of a growing market.
The idea of an old school talent agent, hunched over a phone in some small office overflowing with papers, munching on a cigar and rasping things like “Ya gotta meet this kid. He does things with an end effector you’re not gonna believe” sounds somewhat fanciful. But so, 15 years ago, did the idea of a self-driving car or a robot vacuum in every home. As robots continue to make inroads into every aspect of our lives, it only makes sense that they will spend more and more time on our screens. The lesson: Don’t take anything for granted in the robot economy.
“We’ve always been really focused on looking at what’s coming next,” Gibson said. “That’s what led us to this.”
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