Disney creates task force to explore AI and cut costs

AI has become a powder keg in Hollywood, where writers and actors view it as an existential threat to jobs.
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Updated 08 August 2023
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Disney creates task force to explore AI and cut costs

  • Disney has 11 current job openings seeking candidates with expertise in artificial intelligence or machine learning
  • AI technology to be applied across all Disney division including streaming services and theme parks

LONDON: Walt Disney has created a task force to study artificial intelligence and how it can be applied across the entertainment conglomerate, even as Hollywood writers and actors battle to limit the industry’s exploitation of the technology.
Launched earlier this year, before the Hollywood writers’ strike, the group is looking to develop AI applications in-house as well as form partnerships with startups, three sources told Reuters.
As evidence of its interest, Disney has 11 current job openings seeking candidates with expertise in artificial intelligence or machine learning.
The positions touch virtually every corner of the company — from Walt Disney Studios to the company’s theme parks and engineering group, Walt Disney Imagineering, to Disney-branded television and the advertising team, which is looking to build a “next-generation” AI-powered ad system, according to the job ad descriptions.
A Disney spokesperson declined to comment.
One of the sources, an internal advocate who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said legacy media companies like Disney must either figure out AI or risk obsolescence.
This supporter sees AI as one tool to help control the soaring costs of movie and television production, which can swell to $300 million for a major film release like “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny” or “The Little Mermaid.” Such budgets require equally massive box office returns simply to break even. Cost savings would be realized over time, the person said.
For its parks business, AI could enhance customer support or create novel interactions, said the second source as well as a former Disney Imagineer, who declined to be identified because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
The former Imagineer pointed to Project Kiwi, which used machine-learning techniques to create Baby Groot, a small, free-roaming robot that mimics the “Guardians of the Galaxy” character’s movements and personality.
Machine learning, the branch of AI that gives computers the ability to learn without being programmed, informs its vision systems, so it is able to recognize and navigate objects in its environment. Someday, Baby Groot will interact with guests, the former Imagineer said.
AI has become a powder keg in Hollywood, where writers and actors view it as an existential threat to jobs. It is a central issue in contract negotiations with the Screen Actors Guild and the Writers Guild of America, both of which are on strike.
Disney has been careful about how it discusses AI in public. The visual effects supervisors who worked on the latest “Indiana Jones” movie emphasized the painstaking labors of more than 100 artists who spent three years seeking to “de-age” Harrison Ford so that the octogenarian actor could appear as his younger self in the early minutes of the film.

’STEAMBOAT WILLIE’
Disney has invested in technological innovation since its earliest days. In 1928 it debuted “Steamboat Willie,” the first cartoon to feature a synchronized soundtrack. It now holds more than 4,000 patents with applications in theme parks, films and merchandise, according to a search of the US Patent and Trademark Office records.
Bob Iger, now in his second stint as Disney’s chief executive, made the embrace of technology one of his three priorities when he was first named CEO in 2005.
Three years later, the company announced a major research and development initiative with top technology universities around the world, funding labs at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich and Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It closed the Pittsburgh lab in 2018. Disney’s US research group has developed a mixed-reality technology called “Magic Bench” that allows people to share a space with a virtual character on screen, without need for special glasses.
In Switzerland, Disney Research has been exploring AI, machine learning and visual computing, according to its website. It has spent the last decade creating “digital humans” that it describes as “indistinguishable” from their corporeal counterparts, or fantasy characters “puppeteered” by actors.
This technology is used to augment digital effects, not replace human actors, according to a source familiar with the matter.
Its Medusa performance capture system has been used to reconstruct actors’ faces without using traditional motion-capture techniques, and this technology has been used in more than 40 films, including Marvel Entertainment’s “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.”
“AI research at Disney goes back a very long time and revolves around all the things you see being discussed today: Can we have something that helps us make movies, games, or conversational robots inside theme parks that people can talk to?” said one executive who has worked with Disney.
Hao Li, CEO and co-founder of Pinscreen, a Los Angeles-based company that creates AI-driven virtual avatars, said he worked on multiple research papers with Disney’s lab while studying in Zurich from 2006 to 2010.
“They basically do research on anything based on performance capture of humans, creating digital faces,” said Li, a former research lead at Disney-owned Industrial Light & Magic. “Some of these techniques will be adopted by Disney entities.”
Disney Imagineering last year unveiled the company’s first initiatives in an AI-driven character experience, the D3-09 cabin droid in the Star Wars Galactic Starcruiser hotel, which answered questions on a video screen and learned and changed based on conversations with guests.
“Not only is she a great character to interact with and always available in your cabin, which I think is very cool, behind the scenes, it’s a very cool piece of technology,” Imagineering executive Scott Trowbridge said at the time.


Lebanese newspaper introduces ‘AI President’ in effort to break political deadlock

Updated 15 April 2024
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Lebanese newspaper introduces ‘AI President’ in effort to break political deadlock

  • Artificial intelligence tool’s ‘deep understanding’ of country equips it to address issues effectively, AnNahar newspaper says
  • Lebanon has been without a president for more than two years

LONDON: A Lebanese newspaper has launched what it claims is the world’s first artificial intelligence tool designed to assume presidential duties for a nation, in an attempt to break the long-standing deadlock over who should assume the country’s presidency.

Arabic-language daily AnNahar said the program, which it has called “AI President,” has been trained on an archive of 90 years of “impartial journalism” from its pages. The program analyzes historical data and current events to provide answers to political, legal, and governmental questions.

With its “deep understanding” of Lebanon’s history, “AI President” aims to provide an “unbiased perspective” on the country’s current challenges.

The launch was announced in a live broadcast by Nayla Tueni, AnNahar’s editor-in-chief, who conducted an interview with the software regarding Lebanon’s current issues and potential solutions to them.

Lebanon is facing a number of long-running socio-economic crises, with over 80 percent of the population now reported to be living in poverty.

The country has been without a president for more than two years, despite 13 unsuccessful attempts by the Lebanese parliament to elect one.

Tueni hopes “AI President” will help break the political stalemate and restore confidence in the system.

“We refuse to sit back and allow things to go on as they have. To not have a president for this long is unacceptable and has impacted the country negatively,” Tueni said. “If the parliament will not do its job to elect a president, then the people will bring Lebanon a president.” 

“AI President” will be accessible through the website OurPresident.ai to answer questions on Lebanese politics.


Republican hardliners blame Biden administration after Huawei unveils laptop with new Intel AI chip

Updated 13 April 2024
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Republican hardliners blame Biden administration after Huawei unveils laptop with new Intel AI chip

  • A special license issued by the Trump administration has allowed Intel to ship central processors to Huawei for use in laptops since 2020
  • In August, Huawei unveiled a new phone powered by a sophisticated chip manufactured by sanctioned Chinese chipmaker SMIC

WASHINGTON: Republican US lawmakers on Friday criticized the Biden administration after sanctioned Chinese telecoms equipment giant Huawei unveiled a laptop this week powered by an Intel AI chip.

The United States placed Huawei on a trade restriction list in 2019 for violating Iran sanctions, part of a broader effort to hobble Beijing’s technological advances. Placement on the list means the company’s suppliers have to seek a special, difficult-to-obtain license before shipping to it.
One such license, issued by the Trump administration, has allowed Intel to ship central processors to Huawei for use in laptops since 2020. China hard-liners had urged the Biden administration to revoke that license, but many grudgingly accepted that it would expire later this year and not be renewed.
Huawei’s unveiling Thursday of its first AI-enabled laptop, the MateBook X Pro powered by Intel’s new Core Ultra 9 processor, shocked and angered them, because it suggested to them that the Commerce Department had approved shipments of the new chip to Huawei.
“One of the greatest mysteries in Washington, DC is why the Department of Commerce continues to allow US technology to be shipped to Huawei” Republican Congressman Michael Gallagher, who chairs the House of Representatives select committee on China, said in a statement to Reuters.
A source familiar with the matter said the chips were shipped under a preexisting license. They are not covered by recent broad-cased restrictions on AI chip shipments to China, the source and another person said.
The Commerce Department and Intel declined to comment. Huawei did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The reaction is a sign of growing pressure on the Biden administration to do more to thwart Huawei’s rise, nearly five years after it was added to a trade restriction list.
In August, it shocked the world with a new phone powered by a sophisticated chip manufactured by sanctioned Chinese chipmaker SMIC, becoming a symbol of China’s technological resurgence despite Washington’s ongoing efforts to cripple its capacity to produce advanced semiconductors.
At a Senate subcommittee hearing this week, Kevin Kurland, an export enforcement official, said Washington’s restrictions on Huawei have had a “significant impact” on it access to US technology. He also stressed that the goal was not necessarily to stop Huawei from growing but to keep it from misusing US technology for “malign activities.”
But the remarks did little to stem frustration among Republican China hawks following the news about Huawei’s new laptop.
“These approvals must stop,” Republican congressman Michael McCaul said in a statement to Reuters. “Two years ago, I was told licenses to Huawei would stop. Today, it doesn’t seem as though the policy has changed.”


Three Palestinian journalists injured in Israeli strike on Gaza’s Nuseirat camp

Updated 13 April 2024
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Three Palestinian journalists injured in Israeli strike on Gaza’s Nuseirat camp

  • The 3 reporters were taken to Shohada Al-Aqsa Hospital in Deir Al-Balah
  • Journalist Sami Shehada lost his leg in the attack

GAZA: Three Palestinian journalists were injured in an Israeli airstrike on the Nuseirat refugee camp in Gaza on Friday.

Sami Shehada and Sami Barhoum were covering the events for the TRT Arabic TV channel, while Ahmad Harb was on duty for Al Arabiya News Channel at the time of the incident.

All three journalists were first taken to Al-Awda Hospital, a small facility in the north of the enclave, but later transferred to Shohada Al-Aqsa Hospital in Deir Al-Balah in the central Gaza Strip.

Shehada lost a leg in the attack, which reportedly directly targeted the media team.

“(We) were in a (relatively) safe spot, wearing our press armor and helmets,” Shehada told Arab News. “Even the car I arrived in was labeled ‘TV,’ and I’m a civilian and a journalist — they targeted us.”

Since Oct. 7, at least 122 journalists have been killed by Israeli strikes, according to UN figures, and many more have been injured.

UN experts said in February that they were “alarmed at the extraordinarily high numbers of journalists and media workers who have been killed, attacked, injured and detained in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, particularly in Gaza, in recent months, blatantly disregarding international law. We condemn all killings, threats and attacks on journalists and call on all parties to the conflict to protect them.”


Media watchdogs urge independent probe into Israeli attack that injured Gaza journalists

Updated 12 April 2024
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Media watchdogs urge independent probe into Israeli attack that injured Gaza journalists

  • ‘Assaults on hospitals have further restricted the ability of the press to work safely,’ says NGO official

LONDON: Media watchdogs have called for an independent investigation into an Israeli attack on Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital in Gaza that injured eight journalists.

The strike on March 31 also killed four people and injured nine others.

“Israel’s March 31 attack on a hospital compound where journalists were sheltering and working must be independently investigated,” said Committee to Protect Journalists Program Director Carlos Martinez de la Serna in New York City.

With media offices facing widespread destruction in Gaza, journalists in the enclave have increasingly sought refuge in hospitals.

However, attacks on Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital and the March 18 assault on Al-Shifa Hospital, where journalists were arrested and faced violence, have rendered even hospitals unsafe for press personnel.

“Assaults on hospitals have further restricted the ability of the press to work safely,” added de la Serna.

Reports show that on March 31, an Israeli drone strike hit a tent encampment outside Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital in Deir Al-Balah, central Gaza, near a tent provided by the Turkish Anadolu news agency, where journalists had sought refuge.

The attack targeted a command center belonging to Palestinian Islamic Jihad, resulting in the deaths of four militants and injuries to 17 other people, including eight journalists, according to multiple media outlets and the Palestinian press freedom group MADA.

Items including cameras, laptops and mobile phones belonging to journalists were also destroyed in the strike.

The Palestinian Journalists’ Syndicate in central Gaza has warned of deteriorating conditions for journalists in the enclave, leading many to seek refuge and access to electricity in hospitals in order to file stories.

But recent attacks have eroded confidence in the safety of hospitals across Gaza.

During the Israeli operation in Al-Shifa Hospital on March 18, Al Jazeera Arabic reporter Ismail Al-Ghoul was detained for almost 12 hours alongside several other journalists.

Witnesses reported that soldiers assaulted the group of journalists, destroyed their tent, and damaged equipment and press vehicles.

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Mali’s junta bans the media from reporting on political activities in a deepening crackdown

Updated 12 April 2024
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Mali’s junta bans the media from reporting on political activities in a deepening crackdown

  • Maison de le Press, an umbrella organization of journalists in Mali, said it rejects the order and called on media to continue with their work
  • Col. Assimi Goita, who took charge after a second coup in 2021, has failed in his promised to return the country to democracy in early 2024

BAMAKO, Mali: In a deepening crackdown, Mali’s ruling junta on Thursday banned the media from reporting on activities of political parties and associations, a day after suspending all political activities in the country until further notice.

The order, issued by Mali’s high authority for communication, was distributed on social media. The notice said it applied to all forms of the media, including television, radio, online and print newspapers.
Mali has experienced two coups since 2020, leading a wave of political instability that has swept across West and Central Africa in recent years. Along with its political troubles, the country is also in the grip of a worsening insurgency by militants linked to Al-Qaeda and the Daesh group.
The scope of the ban — or how it would be applied in practice — was not immediately clear. It was also not known if journalists would still be allowed to report on issues such as the economy, which are closely tied to politics and who would monitor their work.
The umbrella organization that represents journalists in Mali responded with an unusually stern rebuttal.
The group, known as Maison de le Press, or Press House, said it rejects the order and called on journalists to continue to report on politics in Mali. It also urged them to “stand tall, remain unified and to mobilize to defend the right of citizens to have access to information.”
Mali’s national commission for human rights also expressed regret and profound concern over the decision in a statement published late Thursday. It warned the junta the decision could prove harmful.
“Instead of calming the social climate, these restrictions on fundamental rights and freedoms could potentially stir up trouble and tension, which the country does not need,” it said.
The clampdown on the media followed a similar action on Wednesday, when the junta ordered the suspension of all activities by political parties until further notice, citing a a need to preserve public order. The news was broadcast on state television as the population was celebrating Eid Al-Fitr, the holiday marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan during which observant Muslims fast from dawn till dusk.
Analysts said the move was likely a backlash against political figures, civil society and students who have expressed frustration with the junta’s failure to return the country to democratic rule as promised.
“Recent weeks saw mounting pressure by political parties and figures,” Rida Lyammouri of the Policy Center for the New South, a Morocco-based think tank, told The Associated Press. “For the first time, the public and politicians have publicly criticized junta leaders and accused them of a lack of seriousness.”
Col. Assimi Goita, who took charge after a second coup in 2021, promised to return the country to democracy in early 2024. But in September, the junta canceled elections scheduled for February 2024 indefinitely, citing the need for further technical preparations.
The junta has vowed to end the insurgency that emerged in 2012 after deposing the elected government. It cut military ties with France amid growing frustration with the lack of progress after a decade of assistance, and turned to Russian contractors, mercenaries from the Wagner group, for security support instead. But analysts say the violence has only grown worse.
The United States said it was “deeply concerned” by the ban on political activities. “Freedom of expression and freedom of association are critical to an open society,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters in Washington.