AI put me in a 'South Park' episode

The Simulation wants to generate animated shows with Showrunner AI.

The Simulation

It was just another day in South Park. The kids were making fun of each other on the playground, while the parents were all doing their best to maintain their sanity in the small Colorado town. And then there was me, a tech journalist going door-to-door warning about the impending AI apocalypse. No, I wasn't actually guest starring on the long-running TV series — I was thrust into an episode entirely produced by the Showrunner AI model from The Simulation, the next iteration of the VR studio Fable.

All it took was some audio of my voice (recorded during a call with The Simulation's CEO Edward Saatchi), a picture and a two-sentence prompt to produce the episode. And while it wasn't the best South Park episode I've seen, I was shocked by how watchable it was. It begins with my AI character popping into Sharon and Randy Marsh's house in the morning, warning them about the AI uprising. Randy is intrigued, but Sharon is annoyed by my arrival (both of which were set up in one sentence of the initial prompt).

"They're [AI] infiltrating every aspect of our lives," my AI character says. "They're in our cars, our phones... even our toasters."

"Our toasters, really? I always knew that little bastard was up to something," Randy replies.

Sure, that's not exactly a tightly crafted joke, but it was enough to make me chuckle. And again, it didn't take much for Showrunner AI to piece that conversation together. Watching this episode made it clear that generative AI can actually produce watchable content (certainly more so than that AI Seinfeld project), but it also made me even more worried about the role of AI in media.

At this moment, writers in the WGA and performers in the SAG-AFTRA unions are striking for better residual pay and protections against potential AI exploitation. A tool like Showrunner AI, which can produce decent content without much effort, threatens creatives everywhere. The WGA strike and the fears around AI-generated content is also the main plot line in the demo South Park episode, "Westland Chronicles."

The Simulation Showrunner AI South Park demo
The Simulation

"Maybe it's a mistake to release it, I'm not sure," Saatchi said over email, when I asked if it's really the best time to launch Showrunner AI. "If our focus was becoming 'the AI TV studio' and gloating that we can make shows with no staff I'd feel very queasy — but we're trying to build a simulation and we need infinite story to make that work."

He added: "Now is the moment, in the biggest strike in 60 years, before AI has achieved takeoff, to negotiate the most aggressive protections possible for writers and actors from producers' use of AI — negotiations now so that these tools are in the hands of artists and creators only and not the hands of producers trying to become Griffin Mill Robert Altman's The Player."

(That character famously said, "I was just thinking what an interesting concept it is to eliminate the writer from the artistic process. If we could just get rid of these actors and directors, maybe we've got something here.")

The idea of building intelligent characters isn't new for Saatchi. In 2018, we discussed Fable Studio's VR adaptation of Neil Gaiman's The Wolves in the Wall, which centered on an interactive character named Lucy. Even then, he thought AI-powered beings were more intriguing than the notion of VR storytelling. Now, thanks to the proliferation of generative AI models, he can finally make that happen.

The Simulation Showrunner AI South Park demo
The Simulation

His goal with The Simulation is right there in the name: He wants to create simulations of characters living their lives in specific environments, similar to The Truman Show. That content could be cut down into episodic summaries with Showrunner AI. Like so many in the AI field, Saatchi eventually wants to build AGI, or Artificial General Intelligence, "an AI that reaches and surpasses human intelligence and is, ultimately, a new lifeform."

While many AI experts remain skeptical about the viability of AGI, Showrunner could still end up being a powerful tool. But of course, like any tool, it could end up being used for good or evil. Saatchi envisions it being helpful for creators to build their own shows without a huge budget, but he also admits it could be used by studios to "undermine artistic expression."

The Simulation Showrunner AI South Park demo
The Simulation

After watching myself starring in a South Park episode, though, I'm more worried than hopeful. The tech isn't perfect yet — my voice sometimes sounds overly robotic, and characters pronounce my name differently almost every time — but it's close enough. Saatchi and his team, including the AI research Philipp Maas, who developed the South Park simulation, still preview every episode to ensure they make sense. But with no end in strike for the Hollywood union strikes, it's hard not to imagine some studio looking at this tool as a potential savior.

“We aren’t releasing the Showrunner commercially and aren’t in talks with the South Park people (though we are with several studios about their IP, as well as creators to make original IP) but we used South Park only so that people have a comparison point between a super high quality human show and an AI show," Saatchi said. "If the showrunner was ever released with the permission of an IP (letting fans create their own episodes) we believe all the revenue should go to the IP holders — these are just remixes after all!"

Currently, The Simulation is developing showrunners around other animated concepts, like a space exploration series, and a Silicon Valley satire dubbed "Exit Valley." The technology can't produce live action content yet. The company is also releasing a research paper explaining how its showrunner AI technology works, with the hopes of encouraging more AI workers to build on it.

The most striking thing about my South Park episode is that it actually feels like an episode of the show. Over the course of five minutes, I visited the local school, where all of the kids proceeded to make fun of me. One wisely lectured me about overhyping claims about the AI apocalypse, while I was also warning them to watch out for clickbait. By the end, I was eager to see more. And that was the most worrying thing of all.