Edward Saatchi, chief executive of Fable Studios CREDIT: KIM WHITE
Edward Saatchi's father and uncle formed the advertising agency Saatchi&Saatchi. But Edward has taken a very different path.
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Nobody could accuse Edward Saatchi of lacking ambition. The 35-year-old Brit, the son of advertising mogul Maurice, has mapped out his small start-up’s route to being the world’s most valuable and important technology company.
His inspiration for that journey isn’t Apple, Google or Saatchi’s former employer Facebook, but a hologram in a Hollywood film. More specifically, Joi, Ryan Gosling’s virtual girlfriend in Denis Villeneuve’s science fiction sequel Blade Runner 2049.
In the film, Joi is the protagonist’s primary way of interacting with technology, carrying out his research, keeping him company and maintaining his home.
She – or it – is the one hundredth, or one thousandth iteration of today’s virtual assistants such as Alexa or Siri. In the neon-lit Blade Runner world, she – or it – has supplanted smartphones, computers and television.
“Whoever built Joi becomes kind of the most important technology company in that universe,” says Saatchi. His San Francisco start-up Fable is so focused on becoming that company in real life that it has taken to fan fiction, sketching out the history of Joi’s creator in order to replicate it.
“What did that company look like? Who worked there? Who was the big company that tried to acquire them and take them out?”
Saatchi aims to take Blade Runner's science fiction to science fact CREDIT: Frank Ockenfels
If Fable is going to be that company, it is only on the start of that journey. Next year, the 18-person venture plans to launch its own “virtual being”, a digital character that users can text message, video call and confide in.
The company has recently secured funding from top Silicon Valley investors including Founders Fund, the firm started by early Facebook backer Peter Thiel, and 8VC, which was an investor in the virtual reality company Oculus before it was sold to the social network.
Saatchi has a crisp English accent and family ties to Britain’s business and cultural spheres.
His father Maurice and uncle Charles formed the advertising agencies Saatchi&Saatchi – famed for Margaret Thatcher’s Labour Isn’t Working campaign – and M&C Saatchi. His mother was the Irish author Josephine Hart.
But the younger Saatchi has spent all of his working life in America. While at the Sorbonne he was inspired at the start of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign and cancelled his studies to fly to Iowa (Saatchi says he had no time to even have considered following his father into the advertising industry).
He meant to go for just a few weeks but while on the campaign trail he built NationalField, a website similar to Facebook, to help co-ordinate staff.
It was subsequently sold to NGP VAN, the Democratic Party’s top political data company. After Obama was re-elected, he went from politics to movies, creating a start-up with former Pixar employees Saschka Unseld and Max Planck, to create virtual reality films.
The timing was auspicious: soon after, Facebook paid $3bn for VR headset maker Oculus. Saatchi and his co-founders joined Facebook and were given $40m to set up a movie studio for the company.
The studio won an Emmy award, but critical success was harder to come by. “There's no evidence, unfortunately, that people want to buy them [VR films], which is a pretty major problem,” says Saatchi.
Pete Billington, Jessica Yaffa Shamash, and Edward Saatchi with their Emmy awards CREDIT: JC Olivera
Both virtual reality and its sister technology augmented reality have been widely seen as disappointments, or at least slow starters, compared to the expectations of a few years ago.
But Saatchi sees a silver lining, saying reduced interest in the technologies has meant a generation of smart techies – including, naturally, himself – leaving the field to pursue new things, and break us out of the current technological rut.
“Now we're all flooding back to these older devices and thinking ‘God, you guys haven't done anything since we were gone’,” Saatchi says. Fable’s virtual beings, he suggests, might be the answer, or at least, part of the answer, even if the idea itself takes some getting used to.
Putting the 'real' into VR
Virtual beings are an existential leap from the idea of voice-recognition assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa or Apple’s Siri. They exist entirely in the digital realm, but beyond that they are, for want of a better word, real.
Saatchi says that when Fable’s virtual being is made available next year it will have a personality, a backstory, its own relationships and flaws. Most crucially, it will have an image. You might follow it on Instagram, or team up to play Fortnite together.
Saatchi’s co-founder Pete Billington says it will “recognise and remember us”, but also understand “our behaviours, habits, our fears, even our hopes and dreams.".
If this all sounds preposterous, consider that Lil Miquela, a virtual influencer, has 2m Instagram followers and the company behind it is worth $125m.
Fable is not alone. Start-ups developing virtual beings for customer service, marketing and medical help are being launched with growing regularity, a consequence of vastly improved voice and text detection systems, and computer models that can generate realistic looking synthetic humans.
Samsung, for example, is funding a digital human project called Neon, which plans to create photo-realistic digital humans for use in customer service.
Saatchi’s company is promising something else: companionship. He says Fable’s users will talk to, meditate with or take cooking lessons from their virtual being.
This will require a level of cognitive dissonance from users. Do we actually want to talk to AI, to project emotions to computer software?
The idea might strike some people as some combination of preposterous – why would we talk to machines?; and frightening – what will happen if we do? But it is happening, nonetheless.
Some children growing up with Alexa and Siri interact with them like they would people; many confide in chatbots; deceased family members have been digitally reincarnated by machine-learning algorithms trained on their real-life conversations.
Saatchi says Fable’s virtual being will be more emotionally engaging than most, in part because the people developing it come from Hollywood as much as Silicon Valley.
The company’s co-founder Billington is a former Dreamworks animator, and several of its employees worked for Pixar, which infused emotion into animation in a way other animators have not managed. Last year, a VR film developed by the studio won an Emmy award.
Saatchi says his time at Facebook, where Oculus’ culture clashed with the Silicon Valley techie orthodoxy, demonstrates that it would be difficult for a company like Amazon or Google to develop a virtual being that people actually want to talk to.
“That engineering and data mindset crushes creative people, unfortunately. Any creative person just has to look up and see product and engineering folks, and know that that's where the power resides at those companies. So they can hire as many people as they like, but culturally, they’re throttled.”
Saatchi also says the tech giants, which already know what we buy, where we go and who are friends are, are unlikely to be trusted with our deepest secrets and feelings, which we might impart to a virtual companion.
“It’s an area ripe for misuse. I think the winning company will be the most ethical just because the things that would be learned would be very important.”
To that end, Saatchi is breaking with family tradition, he is swearing off advertising, saying that if people are to have real relationships with software, they can’t have that data used against them.
“It's just asking for ethical problems, it's just a red flag to say you will only succeed as a company if you violate the trust of your users. I love Facebook. But there are trade offs.” Instead, Fable’s users will pay a monthly subscription for access to their virtual being.
The ethical minefields with virtual companions go deeper than that, however. Science fiction is littered with examples of people abandoning human relationships for more convenient digital ones.
In Blade Runner 2049, Joi is the protagonist’s primary relationship, but a programmed, artificial one.
Saatchi says that the research so far on virtual beings suggests they are used to augment, rather than replace human relationships. People will use them as a sounding board for how to deal with family issues, for example.
He adds that Fable is more interested in replacing the hours we spend watching television or playing video games.
“We have to assess any new technology against current technology. Look at what we're actually doing today, and how impersonal and alienating things are. Is there something more enriching about watching TV for three hours a day, or playing murder simulators on our PCs?
"We're replacing something that has a lot of problems and trying to improve it. Don't forget that you spend so many hours a week glued to a piece of glass. We can do a lot better than that.”