The present and future of post production business and technology | Philip Hodgetts



What does the human bring?

I have a strong interest – personally and professionally – to want to automate the boring parts of post-production away from humans to computers, extending to some of the basic string-outs. This seems to infringe on the “human” role in postproduction, at least according to some of my associates. Well, lately I’ve come across a whole range of stories on how traditionally human roles, like doctors (and assistant editors), can or will be automated out of existence. That’s led me to think about what is the essential role of the human that can’t be automated? It’s not a simple question.

The series of articles started with Technology will replace 80% of what doctors do, and really do a better job for most medical interactions, because most are routine. I like the idea, particularly in the face of stories about the medical establishment like Profits over your dead body, from Ars Technica. The main article lists ways doctors are already being replaced. Their only real go at defining the advantage of a human doctor in the equation:

New technologies will make the receptive doctors better at their jobs – quicker, more accurate, and more fact-based. There is a tremendous opportunity in the influx of data that has never before been available.

Doctors first, then college teachers, with How California’s Online Education Pilot Will End College As We Know It, which in fairness is an extrapolation from a very simple experiment, but it has the ring of truth to it for me. Especially when it includes:

While faculty worry about the quality of online courses, the truth is that our education system, primarily designed to test rote memorization, is built to scale and be independent of teacher interaction. A review of research by the Department of Education in 2009 found that “students who took all or part of their class online performed better, on average, than those taking the same course through traditional face-to-face instruction.”

More recently, a pilot of MIT and Harvard’s joint online educational initiative, EdX, found that blending SJSU classes with world-class online lectures reduced the number of students who received a C or lower by 31%.

In other words, computers can–and have–successfully replaced teachers.

Then I came across a Wired article from December: Better Than Human: Why Robots Will — And Must — Take Our Jobs claiming that up to 70% of jobs will be automated.

All the while, robots will continue their migration into white-collar work. We already have artificial intelligence in many of our machines; we just don’t call it that. Witness one piece of software by Narrative Science (profiled in issue 20.05) that can write newspaper stories about sports games directly from the games’ stats or generate a synopsis of a company’s stock performance each day from bits of text around the web. Any job dealing with reams of paperwork will be taken over by bots, including much of medicine. Even those areas of medicine not defined by paperwork, such as surgery, are becoming increasingly robotic. The rote tasks of any information-intensive job can be automated. It doesn’t matter if you are a doctor, lawyer, architect, reporter, or even programmer: The robot takeover will be epic.

And it has already begun.

Cory Doctorow commented on the arguments that Wired article with the headline Robots are taking your job and mine: deal with it and draws in some other sources as well.

That world of de-marketized, non-market, non-commodity and/or gift economy living is something that seems tantalizingly within our grasp today, and it feels like automation holds the key to so much of it. But is it just the latest version of the dream of a leisure society?

I wasn’t so concerned when robots built cars, but writing articles, and building simple video stories starts to feel like it’s impinging on my own turf. But there is hope in that Wired article, for those who are ready to embrace the automation and use it to advance their abilities:

It is a safe bet that the highest-earning professions in the year 2050 will depend on automations and machines that have not been invented yet. That is, we can’t see these jobs from here, because we can’t yet see the machines and technologies that will make them possible. Robots create jobs that we did not even know we wanted done.

As well as my own professional efforts to automate the boring out of post (along with a lot of other people, such as Avid Professional Services automation for Discovery) Michael Cioni of LightIron feels that the current DIT role, and the traditional role of Post Houses in media managing for post, will be largely automated out of existence by 2015.

All of which brings me to the question, that may be largely unanswerable until we see closer what the future will bring, is what does a human editor bring to the project?  Automatic metadata derivation will become ubiquitous; speech transcription and keyword extraction, as well, our company has tools for building string-outs from that metadata that are technically competent…

And perhaps there I answer my own question. First Cuts does a technically competent edit, at most a starting point for bringing an emotional layer to the piece. A human connects (and intercuts) a performance of 16 going on 17 with the same young star singing Hanky Panky the next day. (They intercut amazingly well!).

I think the uniquely human contribution is the emotion and intuition (a.k.a creativity) to elevate a story beyond “competent”.  These  are the skills we should be working on developing. Great visual recall and story telling skills won’t hurt either.

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  • AndrewKq · January 18, 2013 at 2:24 pm

    I think humans will continue to excel at what we already excel at which is emotional and creative problem solving and understanding the relationship between images and sounds in context and use that knowledge to manipulate the audience.

    For something straight forward like a used car commercial or to create a string out based on producer notes I think automation will come into play but we are a long way off from a computer being able to decide which beat to cut on for best comedic effect or choosing the take that has be best dramatic chemistry between the actors.

    Considering IBM’s Watson’s had to have the Urban Dictionary wiped from its memory because it currently can’t learn the difference between polite words and impolite words I think the days of computers comprehending the Kuleshov Effect are still pretty far off.

    As an aside, the article talking about the collapse of the collegiate system as we know it is a bit depressing as the last thing our education system needs is more rote memorization.

  • Procrustes · January 21, 2013 at 11:36 am

    A.I. or brute force robotics will never gain human intuitive sense. We, as humans, are able to see context, draw inferences, and make leaps of imagination that we barely understand. We don’t know how we do it. We just do it.

    We know how the beat up chair is worn and comfortable, and we know what sitting on it would be like. We not only recognize the chair as a chair but see it in a whole world embedded with meanings and relationships. An algorithm may be able to search through footage and identify a chair, but it can’t know what a shot of a well worn but empty chair could mean.

    What we add, as editors, is our humanness. Sadly, we may simply not have the time to engage in this humanness anymore. The hope that automation will free up some time to let us be more creative and human seems out of step with the fierce competition in the marketplace.

    • Author comment by Philip · January 21, 2013 at 11:40 am

      I agree, for now! Never say “never” as most of the things we do daily now were “impossible” when I started in the industry over 30 years ago.

      The problem, from my perspective, isn’t in programing the algorithm but understanding what we are actually doing when we make edit decisions: what is the basis of it (and then, of course, getting that information/metadata in a form the algorithm can use.

      My expectation is that automation will give people more time to explore the humaneness rather than simply process clips into some sort of order first.

  • AndrewK · January 30, 2013 at 2:39 pm

    Lots of reading here but the AP recently put out a trio of articles talking about the economics of job losses and the role technology is playing. Pretty interesting and certainly ties in with the theme of this blog post

    Part 1

    Part 2

    Part 3


  • AndrewK · January 30, 2013 at 7:20 pm

    I don’t think there were any significant scare tactics in those pieces. Though I’ll probably skip the “The Lights in the Tunnel” book as it seems as overly negative as much as some other articles seem overly rose-colored. There will be economic and social consequences and I think that discussing those aspects is meaningful. Just talking about how awesome tech will be in the future, how everyone will magically find new jobs and how great it will be ignores the reality of the situation.

    The automation of the future will not be just like the automation of the past. We will be able to automate higher level tasks than just manual labor, the world is significantly more populated than it was before which means much more displacement and the pace of automation is only going to get quicker.

    I don’t think we can look to the future without looking at the path we must take to get there.



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