Actor Gurmit Singh wants Phua Chu Kang – and himself – to live on forever as an AI avatar, Latest TV News - The New Paper

Actor Gurmit Singh wants Phua Chu Kang – and himself – to live on forever as an AI avatar

Netizens may have baulked when a Chinese vlogger recently used artificial intelligence (AI) to “resurrect” late celebrities such as Chinese-American pop star Coco Lee and Taiwanese-Canadian actor Godfrey Gao and generate videos of them, which went on to make headlines and spark outrage.

But home-grown actor Gurmit Singh is not opposed to an AI avatar of him – as well as his most iconic character, Ah Beng contractor Phua Chu Kang from local sitcom Phua Chu Kang Pte Ltd (1997 to 2007) – living on eternally. 

At an event held at the National Library Building on March 22 to unveil his AI avatar, the 58-year-old star tells The Straits Times: “Isn’t that a great legacy to leave? It can even generate passive income for my family. Imagine my great-great-grandchild still getting money (via royalties) because Gurmit Singh is (hired to do) another virus rap. Phua Chu Kang will never die.”

Singh was tapped during both the severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak of 2003 and the Covid-19 pandemic to rap about good hygiene habits as his famous TV persona.

The funnyman was one of some 20 local celebrities, including actors Li Nanxing and Shane Pow and actresses Kate Pang and Evelyn Tan, who launched IdoLive.

Presented by marketing consultancy firm The Celeb Net, it touts itself as an AI digital celebrity marketing solution. It will manage the use of AI avatars of celebrities, which are endorsed by the talents themselves, for marketing purposes, such as hosting live-stream sales. 

The move is supposed to help businesses cut costs – as the price of engaging a celebrity’s AI avatar will be only a fraction of what would be paid for a physical appearance – and increase income streams for the stars too.

Singh says: “I’ve had situations where I had to be here and there at the same time, and instead of satisfying five clients, I could satisfy only one. But with this new technology, an AI of Phua Chua Kang can be giving a public announcement for Covid-19, while I host a dinner and dance at the same time.”

Singh and other local stars’ warm welcome of AI is in stark contrast to Hollywood, where actors went on a prolonged strike in 2023, in part to prevent AI generation of their image and voice replacing their work. 

Veteran Li admits he felt resistant to an AI version of himself in the beginning too.

The 59-year-old says: “I am someone who prefers sticking to the traditional. But AI is the future, and I’m willing to accept it instead of binding myself to where I am now.”

Li, whose AI avatar was shown speaking on-screen at the event, says he was taken aback when he first saw the online “clone” of himself. 

He recalls: “I thought it looked quite real, but of course not as real as the actual me, because real people make mistakes. And I’ve never been as perfect as my AI. I was looking at him, like, ‘Wow, he never needs to do another take, and his flow is so good.’”

He adds: “I still don’t feel that AI can replace humans. Humans have feelings and AI cannot accurately capture the spontaneity and emotions that I have. But it can help us spread messages and take on opportunities we might not have time for otherwise.”

When asked if they were afraid of their avatars being exploited for nefarious or criminal purposes, the stars expressed trust in The Celeb Net due to their long working relationship with its founder Mr Kevin Zhang, formerly a Mediacorp executive who helped celebrities with their endorsement deals.

According to Mr Zhang, IdoLive is committed to the ethical use of AI.

Talents must give consent before their avatar takes on any job and they will also vet the script that the avatar reads. Depending on their agreement with the talents, avatars are either owned by IdoLive, the talents themselves or shared between the two.

Tan, 49, says: “Rather than reacting when some company exploits your image and misuses it, artistes should take a proactive stance to guide AI into its proper usage. The way we navigate these technological changes is by getting involved.”

Pow, who does live-stream sales on top of acting, hopes his avatar can help him with his side hustle.

“When I was filming and doing live streaming at the same time, my body couldn’t take it. Perhaps the AI version of me can do live-stream sales while I act, so I still have time to rest,” says the 33-year-old.

But will fans be receptive to an avatar of Pow selling products instead of Pow doing it himself?

He says: “I think there’s always resistance to new things, but eventually, people will come around. Right now, it’s just the beginning (of AI). But perhaps in five years, it’ll be so common that no one bats an eye.”