The Korean avatar team has millions of views online

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Since the release of their debut single “I’m Real” in 2021, Eternity, a Korean girl group in the increasingly popular K-pop genre, has recorded millions of views online. They sing, dance and communicate with their fans just like any other band. In fact, there is one big difference between them and other pop groups: all 11 members of the group are virtual characters – avatars created with the help of artificial intelligence. “The business we are doing with Eternity is new business. I think it’s a new genre,” says Park Jieun, the woman behind the creation of the band. “The advantage of having virtual artists is that while K-pop stars often struggle with physical limitations and even mental problems because they are human beings, virtual artists can be free of them.” The cultural wave of Korean pop over the past decade has become a huge force. With its catchy melodies, high-tech production and slick dance routines, K-pop has burst into the global mainstream, becoming one of South Korea’s most lucrative and influential exports. Eternity’s virtual faces were created by the deep learning technology company Pulse9. Park Jieun is the CEO of the organization. Initially, the company generated 101 fantastic faces, dividing them into four categories according to their charm: cute, sexy, innocent and intelligent. Fans were asked to vote for their favourites. In-house designers then set to work animating the winning characters according to fan preferences. For live chats, videos and online fan meetings, avatar faces are displayed on the faces of anonymous singers, actors and dancers contracted by Pulse9. The technology acts as a deepfake filter, bringing the characters to life. “Virtual characters can be perfect, but they can also be more human than people,” Park Jieun tells BBC 100 Women. As deepfake technology goes mainstream, there have been concerns that it could be used to manipulate people’s photos without their permission or to generate dangerous disinformation. Women reported that their faces were put in pornographic videos and deep fakes of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky were shared on social media. Park Jieun, however, sees advantages in having virtual teams where each avatar can be controlled by their creators. “The scandal caused by real human K-pop stars can be fun, but it’s also a business risk,” he says. He believes he can put these new technologies to good use and minimize the risk to overburdened and under pressure K-pop artists struggling to keep up with industry demands. In recent years, K-pop has made headlines for a variety of social issues and scandals, from dating rumors and online trolling and shaming, to singers’ extreme diets and sexual harassment. The genre has also sparked a discussion about mental health and cyberbullying in South Korea following the tragic deaths of young K-pop stars, which many believe had a significant impact on their popularity. BBC/KR

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