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Do AIs Dream of NFT? Collaborating with People and Computers to Celebrate Community

JC Steinbrunner

This week we honored the 47 members of our inaugural AI Visionaries program, an annual look at the people embracing and employing artificial intelligence and machine learning to address consequential business challenges. Months in the making, AI Visionaries culminated during Legalweek in a lively dinner at Bryant Park Grill in midtown New York. The highlight of the evening was a discussion on AI’s potential to delineate patterns of bias, featuring Relativity CEO Mike Gamson and Chief Diversity Officer Virginia Essandoh of Ballard Spahr, moderated by legendary journalist Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes.

At Relativity, we place great stock in building relationships and spotlighting talent, both within our organization and across our industries. We have found that great things come from the network effects of powerful technology, empowered voices, and opportunities to socialize and share perspectives. In short, collaboration breeds trust. It’s a rapport that glues our employees and our users together. We’ve seen it in action for more than a decade at Relativity Fest, where people can come together to learn, get inspired, meet each other, and celebrate each other’s work. We’ve had a lot of fun bringing that same verve and growth mindset to AI Visionaries.

Leaning Into Ownership

Over the past few months, we interviewed our AI Visionaries, learning about the role of tech in their lives, learning about their lives. It is inspirational stuff. We heard about Virginia’s efforts to understand bias in performance reports to improve equity and inclusion at her firm, Ballard Spahr. Josh Zylbershlag and Ross Gotler extolled the power of well-ordered e-discovery processes at Paul, Weiss. We learned about how so many of these professionals are embracing new ways to work.

“It’s not always about the product, the demos,” says Rocco Sannelli, a marketing leader at Relativity and a founder of AI Visionaries. “We want to highlight champions and thought leaders in spaces where you wouldn't normally see much talk about innovation and taking risks. Financial services and risk, banking and risk, legal and risk … they don't always go hand in hand. How these professionals are giving new technologies a chance was a story we want to tell.”

Over dozens of interviews, themes emerged. Common across our honorees was a sense of ownership they brought to their work, their teams, their careers. These were experimenters. Quiet pioneers. The vanguards who “have to blaze a trail,” as Ausra Deluard, co-chair of the U.S. Competition and Antitrust Group at Dentons and 2022 AI Visionaries honoree, put it.

A Collaboration of Intellect and AI

As AI visionaries ourselves, we wanted to show our appreciation for their leadership with a gift. In true Relativity fashion, we wanted that award to reflect our commitment to collaboration and fun. To create a heartfelt memento, we needed to involve others … and not necessarily other people. What if we truly embraced artificial intelligence as the great enhancer, the amplification machine making human wit and knowledge bigger than any human could? What if we played a game?

“People are good at creativity, that innately human tendency to combine disparate ideas into something meaningful,” notes Omar Haroun, co-founder of Text IQ, A Relativity Company, and an originator of the AI Visionaries program. “AI can perform computationally intensive tasks at a scale and precision that goes beyond anything that humans can do. You can train AI to pore through thousands of paintings and it will ultimately produce a painting … but it won't necessarily be a work of art.” 

Our award, in other words, needed a human-machine collaboration: the associative powers of people and the speed of robots. We started by running our visionaries’ recorded interviews through a transcription platform using automated speech recognition and natural language processing to get the texts of the conversations. As we copy edited posts for clarity and length, we humans flagged passages that expressed attributes of our visionaries: hopes, dreams, hobbies, aspirations. Visions. That set of keywords was fed to a generative adversarial network that ran through hundreds of iterations to transform those words into a visual depiction—a unique AI-generated digital artwork.

It was interesting, but that didn’t unite them as AI Visionaries. We had to extend our collaboration a step further. We needed another human (and maybe some more computers).

Cole Orloff is a creative director and 3D-animator based in Chicago. His work blends disciplines across advertising, branding, and emerging technologies to explore artistic concepts. We collaborated with Cole to develop a virtual environment centered on a trophy-like object—the AI Visionaries monolith rising from a Tron-like digital plane. Cole used the AI-generated artwork to create a height map—essentially a grayscale version of the image—that mapped each light-to-dark value to a spatial relationship, creating undulating elevations on the plane. The results are vivid—a wild landscape unique to each visionary. A consistent camera swooping through the virtual space of each award unites them, making them part of one AI Visionaries whole.

“Thinking inside the box gets a bad rap sometimes,” says Cole. “This wasn't just creating an animation, it was also developing a process, a system in which all of these animations live in relation to the people they are representing. If you’re really doing it right, there’s an infinite number of things to play around with inside the box.”

The resulting animations were minted as NFTs. Because, really, what’s a more current way to reflect ownership in 2022 than a non-fungible token? All the rage (and often outrageous), NFTs have been minted, seemingly, for everything: the out-of-nowhere artist Beeple; Jack Dorsey’s first Tweet; a year of burgers at Applebee's. These digital records on the blockchain are the latest way we lay claim to artwork, texts, or ideas—a fitting gift to business leaders who have taken ownership of their careers by harnessing artificial intelligence.

The experiment was energizing. By setting rules without dictating results, we created the conditions for serendipity—rules to be creative. We found a way to collaborate with AI and play. The results are preserved in a contemporary concept of ownership as an expression of gratitude for our AI visionaries’ leadership.

AI Visionaries | NFT

Where It’s Going

We wanted the members of AI Visionaries to feel special. We also wanted to poke the potential of different AI processes outside of our product portfolio to learn what artificial intelligence and machine learning really means for all aspects of our company. Relativity employs data scientists, engineers, and product managers. It also employs artists, actors, writers, sellers, lawyers, finance gurus, and administrators. All of these professionals will at some point bring AI into their practices.

“The shift to AI is already happening. People should be aware of these technologies,” says Rocco. “We want to bring them AI literacy. Just like today you need to be able to use a spreadsheet in any modern job, we want to get to a point where AI literacy is just as important.”

What we learned from developing AI Visionaries is that the future of AI for all of us is exciting, and unwritten. We each have our fingers on the keys. Let’s play.

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JC Steinbrunner is the senior director of brand at Relativity and the executive producer of On the Merits, a docuseries that explores how the Relativity community uses technology to find truths in data that promote just outcomes in important current events.