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Who's In This Podcast
Helen Todd is co-founder and CEO of Sociality Squared and the human behind Creativity Squared.
Creativity Squared Episode Cover Art with Jon Tota
Jon Tota has spent his 25-year career in all aspects of online digital media and has founded multiple companies. Currently as CEO of Render, Jon leads the company’s strategic directions and works in avatar creation, product design, and business development.

Ep5. Jon Tota: Custom Synths Are Here

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Ep6. Phil Gable: Keep A.I. Absurd

Ep5. Custom Synths Are Here: Discover Use Cases for Your Digital Likeness and Content Creation Efficiencies with A.I. from Jon Tota

Have you ever wished you had a duplicate version of yourself? If the answer is yes, this episode with Jon Tota is for you!

Jon has spent his 25-year career at the forefront of all aspects of online digital media, including what’s in this episode! You’ll learn about photo-realistic digital replicas of people using A.I. These are also known as digital doubles or twins, synthetic avatars, and people’s digital likeness.

Jon started as a screenwriter in the early 90’s and then went on to design computer networks and trading systems for Wall Street firms. Jon co-founded Edulence in 2002 and launched Knowledgelink as one of the first video training platforms in 2004. Edulence was acquired in 2020 by ELB Learning to make Knowledgelink the Learning Management System for one of the most trusted brands in the Learning & Development space.

Fast forward to today, Jon creates immersive audio and learning content at Syntax + Motion which produces online courses, interactive video series, and podcast shows.

He’s also at the forefront of A.I. synthetic media as CEO of Render. Render provides Digital Likeness solutions for personal brand businesses, thought leaders, influencers, and business leaders who want to leverage their synthetic, A.I.-powered Likeness to communicate more effectively online and create audio and video content from anywhere without going on camera.

As a sponsor of this podcast, Render is going to be creating a digital replica of Helen’s image and likeness, and an accurate clone of her voice so she’ll be able to create hyper-realistic avatar content with ease later this summer and we couldn’t be more excited about it! 

We’ll also be bringing a content capture event to Cincinnati in October so sign up for our free newsletter to stay in the loop!

In this episode’s conversation with Jon, you’ll discover what digital doubles are, their application use cases in our 2D world, the ethics around them, the power of prompting from a developer’s perspective, how ChatGPT can help writers, how A.I. can break down barriers of entry for people to pursue new creative outlets, and why Jon always starts with a script.

Digital Likeness Explained

Jon has worked in the synthetic media space for the last three years and realizes it may be a new concept for many. Sometimes the avatars that he creates are known as digital twins or digital humans.

“Simply put, it’s essentially a generated version of you.” 

Jon Tota

It’s a digital replica of yourself that looks very lifelike and mimics your voice. Once you have your avatar, you can type in scripts and then it delivers your message through video. It can be unsettling to see your digital twin for the first time since it’s so realistic! 

Jon appreciates the fact that synthetic media and A.I. tools help people create content more quickly and cost-effectively. However, he doesn’t want there to be an inauthentic relationship with the technology and the audience. We should present avatars as tools for communication rather than trying to pass them off as real people.

He wants to help people figure out how to use their avatars, introduce them, and name them in an ethical, authentic manner.

Jon Tota's photo beside his digital avatar

Stock Avatars vs. Custom Digital Likeness 

Jon told us that there are two worlds in the synthetic media space: the stock avatar space and the digital likeness space. The stock avatar space is where technology is most widely used for large corporate organizations and is a great tool for creating multiple versions of videos at low cost. However, there are challenges with fake news in this space. He gave the example of the deepfake using Tom Cruise.

“Because the voice is going to be almost indistinguishable soon, as far as avatars go.”

Jon Tota

In contrast, the digital likeness space, where his company Render operates, involves helping people replicate themselves with their permission and use their digital likeness in place of themselves. This is different from deep fakes or fake news, which can be done with stock avatars. Render verifies that the user creating the digital likeness is truly them, and the application validates the user’s identity based on their profile content. The digital likeness allows for more creativity and the ability to create more content. The process takes about 90-minutes including taking video and cloning the voice. He does see that voice between the “real” you and the “digital” you is going to be almost indistinguishable soon since the technology has become less expensive. His clients are mainly small business owners and those who want to expand their personal brand like a professional speaker who’s trying to book an event or a financial advisor. People have a fun time creating their avatar and it’s a cool process.

ChatGPT and the Rise of the Prompt

Avatars require one thing to perform, which is a script. ChatGPT can be instrumental in helping write the script for the avatar to say. As a writer himself, he sees it as essentially having a virtual writing partner. Scripting is so important to the process of using an avatar that now you’re not scripting alone, you’re scripting with a virtual writing partner that can help you through it and avoid the dread of the blank page. It’s limitless, the results you get back to it. Furthermore, Jon believes that ChatGPT-based prompting can level the playing field for smaller development teams, allowing them to build applications that would have taken years with larger teams.

“It comes back to prompting, your ability to prompt and to teach people how to prompt in better ways.”

Jon Tota

The prompts are the most important thing when it comes to ChatGPT and people must learn how to prompt effectively. He thinks about prompts from an application developer perspective. 

Jon explains that you can take a three-minute script, put it into a preset prompt into GPT, and end up with a 30-second clip for social media. It would take a writer hours to make those edits. For example, he writes a script from his own perspective that’s serious, and through ChatGPT can shorten it, make it funny, and appeal to a certain audience. But people need to know how to give the right prompts. Jon emphasizes the responsibility of application developers to understand their users’ needs and integrate the right prompts to guide them effectively.

Potential Dangers of A.I. Technology

“I think an interesting point is that every problem that A.I. will create, it will also solve.”

Jon Tota

Jon is after efficiencies in his work and believes that what people should lean on A.I. for. You could use A.I. to basically plagiarize your way to a first draft but that’s the wrong use. It should enhance your work but not completely replace it. While Jon values A.I., he does understand the concern people have. 

Intellectual property really becomes compromised in almost every way. But then again, we as a society have put all of our thoughts and work out on the internet for public use. You can’t blame A.I. for aggregating stuff that you put online and teaching itself to be you. The problem is particularly challenging for well-known thought leaders who have a lot of content online, as their identities can be replicated by A.I. It’s a side effect of putting great content online. It’s problematic when bad actors try to pass it off as from the original source.

There may be a technical fix to protect content online but it’s difficult to stop the continued development of A.I. models and the growth of content on the internet. He mentions the ongoing debate around slowing A.I. development but the train has already left the station.

Democratization of Application Development

“I do think just removing that barrier of entry to certain creative pursuits is one of the great benefits of A.I.”

Jon Tota

Jon believes that A.I. will democratize application development and make it accessible to more people, just as cloud computing did with Amazon Web Services. He envisions a future where people can sketch out a wireframe of a website and use A.I. to code it, allowing for more efficient and faster development.

For production companies with slim margins, A.I. gives them a competitive advantage. It may not be sexy to talk about but A.I. will have a huge impact on video production (not just negative) because it’s a shot to make real money. And that goes beyond media production.

Anybody with a good idea can build a software application now delivered online and charge people to use it. You don’t need to be an engineer. Jon considers it “one of the coolest things ever.” Small businesses in general can use A.I. to improve efficiencies, scale their work, and profit from it. 

While there will be new hurdles, there are also new paths for people. A.I. removes a barrier of entry to certain creative pursuits. 

Jill in studio being captured for her digital avatar

What Comes Next

“It’s a cool space because it’s very interoperable right now and so I love that aspect of it.”

Jon Tota

Synthetic avatars will continue to get more and more lifelike. At some point, he sees the capability of avatars as “extras” in a film completely generated by A.I. There’s only so much you can do with an avatar but then you can dynamically generate and add visuals around it and music, making the video more interesting. Jon also highlights the accessibility of A.I. services through open APIs, which allows for innovation and easy integration into user experiences.

He doesn’t dare predict beyond the next year because the space is moving too quickly. But he sees an innovative space that can open doors. People don’t need to figure out what stability is already figured out but just decide how it integrates into their user experience and how they can add value to the process. A.I. can do something it would have taken years to do and cut the timeline. 

At the end of the day, our guesses are as good as his on what the future holds! However, he does believe it’s an exciting one.

Links Mentioned in this Podcast

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Jon, we appreciate you being our guest on Creativity Squared.

This show is produced and made possible by the team at PLAY Audio Agency: https://playaudioagency.com.  

Creativity Squared is brought to you by Sociality Squared, a social media agency who understands the magic of bringing people together around what they value and love: http://socialitysquared.com.

Because it’s important to support artists, 10% of all revenue Creativity Squared generates will go to ArtsWave, a nationally recognized non-profit that supports over 100 arts organizations.

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