- China’s synthetic startup is Surreal.
- Surreal receives nearly ten investment offers in its seed round.
- As investors jostled to bet on a future shaped by AI-generated content.
- Surreal adds an encrypted and invisible watermark to each piece to track and avoid misuse.
The company is merely three months old but has already secured a seed round of $2-3 million from two prominent investors, Sequoia China and ZhenFund. Surreal received nearly ten investment offers in this round, founder and CEO Xu Zhuo told TechCrunch, as investors jostled to bet on a future shaped by AI-generated content.
Before founding Surreal, Xu spent six years at Snap, building its ad recommendation system, machine learning platform, and AI camera technology. The experience convinced Xu that synthetic media would become mainstream because the tool could significantly “lower the cost of content production,” Xu said in an interview from Surreal’s a-dozen-person office in Shenzhen.
Google, Facebook, Tencent, and ByteDance, also have research teams working on GAN. Xu’s strategy is not to directly confront the heavyweights, which are drawn to big-sized contracts. Surreal’s software is currently only for enterprise customers, who can use it to either change faces in uploaded content or generate an entirely new image or video.
Xu calls Surreal a “Google Translate for videos,” for the software. It can not only swap people’s faces but also translate the languages they speak accordingly. It can also match their lips with voices. Users are charged per video or picture. In the future, Surreal aims to not just animate faces but also people’s clothes and motions. While Surreal declined to disclose its financial performance, Xu said the company has accumulated around 10 million photo and video orders.
Surreal adds an encrypted and invisible watermark to each piece of the content it generates. It also claims ownership. There’s an odd chance that the “person” Surreal produces would match someone in real life. The company runs an algorithm that crosschecks all the faces it creates with photos it finds online.
The technology powering Surreal, called generative adversarial networks, is relatively new. Introduced by machine learning researcher Ian Goodfellow in 2014, GANs consist of a “generator” that produces images and a “discriminator” that detects whether the image is fake or real. The pair enters a period of training with adversarial roles, hence the nomenclature, until the generator delivers a satisfactory result. In the wrong hands, GANs can be exploited for fraud, pornography, and other illegal purposes. That’s in part why Surreal starts with enterprise use rather than making it available to individual users.