Sporting neon hair and flawless skin, Bangkok Naughty Boo is one of a new generation of influencers in Asia promising to stay forever young, on-trend, and scandal-free — because they are computer generated.
Blurring the lines between fantasy and reality, these stars are hugely popular with teenagers in the region and will yield increasing power as interest grows in the “metaverse”, industry experts say.
“I’m 17 forever, non-binary, with a dream of becoming a pop star,” Bangkok Naughty Boo — who uses they/them pronouns — said in an introductory video sent to AFP.
Created by fashion designer Adisak Jirasakkasem and his friends, who envisioned a gender-fluid persona to hang the ideals of the artist community, the character is one of a tribe of “Made in Thailand” virtual influencers borne from COVID-19 pressures.
Digital character Ai-Ailynn is one of a tribe of ‘Made in Thailand’ virtual influencers borne from COVID-19 pressuresPhoto: SIA Bangkok via AFP / Handout
In September, Ai-Ailynn made her debut — she was created after her agency became frustrated by the “limitations on human influencers” during COVID-19 lockdowns.
Virtual influencers “are suitable for the new normal,” SIA Bangkok told AFP.
Artificial intelligence creations are establishing a foothold worldwide in the lucrative influencer market, which is expected to be worth $13.8 billion in 2021, according to data giant Statista.
But industry analysts say Asia is where the industry will really boom in the coming decade.
Sporting neon hair and flawless skin, Bangkok Naughty Boo is one of a new generation of influencers in Asia promising to stay forever young, on-trend, and scandal-free — because they are computer generatedPhoto: AFP / Lillian SUWANRUMPHA
“We think Asia will be an area of rapid growth in the sector of virtual influencers. Generation Z is the largest group of internet users in Asia, and it is a digitally adept generation that is highly familiar with social media and all things virtual,” explained Nick Baklanov, a marketing specialist with Hype Auditor.
The number of virtual influencers has more than tripled to 130 in two years, according to Baklanov, who predicted Facebook’s investment in the metaverse — dubbed a VR version of the internet — will mean an industry boom.
“Virtual influencers are better suited to the role of the first inhabitants of the metaverse than anyone else,” he added.
Blurring the lines between fantasy and reality, virtual influencers are hugely popular with teenagers and will yield increasing power as interest grows in the ‘metaverse’, industry experts sayPhoto: AFP / Lillian SUWANRUMPHA
The biggest virtual earner is believed to be Lil Miquela, the LA-based “robot It-Girl” who has worked with Prada and Calvin Klein, and makes an estimated $7,000 per post.
The World Health Organization recruited Knox Frost, a 21-year-old AI “universal adapter” from Atlanta, to spread coronavirus safety messages to his 700,000 followers.
In Asia, computer-generated pop stars including Japan’s Hatsune Miku and Luo Tianyi from China, as well as virtual K-Pop groups Eternity and K/DA, have paved the way for newer “stars” as technology improves.
To create Bangkok Naughty Boo, Adisak photographed a model in different locations across the Thai capital before creating the character’s face online.
Human influencer Mutchima Wachirakomain says she is not worried about the rise of virtual rivalsPhoto: AFP / Lillian SUWANRUMPHA
He merged the computer-generated face and the real life model’s body to make his virtual idol.
Bangkok Naughty Boo has already been signed to a leading Thai — human — modelling agency, while Ai-Ailynn has already secured a deal to be the face of a major mobile operator.
“Influencers yield more power in the East and provide more lucrative brand and engagement opportunities, as the idol and fandom concepts are more rooted in culture,” Saisangeeth Daswani, a fashion and beauty industry analyst at market intelligence company Stylus, explained.
With trouble-free pasts, a round-the-clock work ethic, and easily controlled public personas, the fictional avatars are also respite for companies weary of reputational damage.
“Some brands enjoy the safety of associating with (virtual) influencers who have a pre-defined backstory and future,” commented Christopher Travers, the founder of Virtual Humans, a website tracking the industry.
And with authorities in some Asian nations policing freedom of expression, businesses may prefer the ability to control everything.
“The Chinese government’s recent crackdown on exorbitantly paid, ‘vulgar’ and ‘immoral’ influencers is likely to further boost the appeal of virtual influencers,” explained Chen May Yee, APAC director for Wunderman Thompson Intelligence.
“They won’t make impolitic comments or be embroiled in sex scandals.”
SIA Bangkok say there has been huge interest in Ai-Ailynn with businesses in pandemic-ravaged Asia looking to “innovation and a new world order”.
A shake-up of the status quo may have some flesh-and-blood content creators worried, but human influencer Mutchima Wachirakomain welcomes the newcomers.
“They are freaking cool,” exclaimed the 25-year-old, who shares glamour shots alongside “no filter” makeup-free looks to her 21,100 followers on Instagram.
“People still yearn for authenticity, the realness of a real-life influencer,” she said as she prepped for a shoot at an avocado-themed cafe.
“The characters can’t replace the intimate connections humans have with each other.”
But Bangkok Naughty Boo is prepared to try.
Their Instagram is a mix of cheeky ensembles shot against the backdrop of Thailand’s concrete jungle capital as well as daily life snippets like getting a first vaccine shot and spilling bubble milk tea.
“I hope I can meet you all in person one day. Love you!” they told AFP, signing off with a kiss.
Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev issued rare criticism of his long-ruling predecessor Tuesday, and said he expected Russian-led forces to leave the troubled Central Asian country in the next 10 days.
The oil-rich country’s descent into chaos has laid bare infighting at the top of a government once dominated by Tokayev’s mentor, 81-year-old Nursultan Nazarbayev.
The older man retains the constitutional status of “Leader of the Nation” despite stepping down from the presidency in 2019.
Addressing lawmakers in a video conference broadcast live, Tokayev fired an eyebrow-raising broadside at Nazarbayev as the post-Soviet country reels from unprecedented violence that began with peaceful protests over an energy price hike.
Tokayev, 68, said Nazarbayev’s rule had created “a layer of wealthy people, even by international standards”.
Dozens died in the unrest and 10,000 people have been arrestedPhoto: AFP / Alexandr BOGDANOV
“The time has come to pay tribute to the people of Kazakhstan and help them on a systematic and regular basis,” Tokayev added, noting that “very profitable companies” would be asked to pay money into a state fund.
“The current system is oriented towards major structures and is based on the principle: ‘everything for friends and laws for everyone else’,” he said.
Both Kazakhstan and Russia have framed last week’s unrest that left dozens dead and almost 10,000 people arrested as a coup attempt assisted by foreign “terrorists”, but have provided little supporting evidence.
Tokayev blamed his predecessor for creating a rich elitePhoto: SPUTNIK via AFP / Yevgeny BIYATOV
Following a request from career diplomat Tokayev, the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) deployed troops to bring about order and shore up the authorities.
On Tuesday, Tokayev announced “a phased withdrawal” would begin in two days and take “no more than 10 days”.
“The main mission of the CSTO peacekeeping forces has been successfully completed,” he said.
The CSTO mission of more than 2,000 troops was deployed at the peak of the crisis, after armed clashes between government opponents and security forces and a looting spree trashed parts of the largest city Almaty.
The decision was a first for the CSTO, often touted by Moscow as a NATO equivalent but previously reluctant to interfere in unrest in Central Asia, a region with long historical ties to Russia.
Nursultan Nazarbayev retains the constitutional status of ‘Leader of the Nation’Photo: AFP / NICHOLAS KAMM
Concern has mounted that Moscow could leverage the mission to entrench its influence in Kazakhstan and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned that “once Russians are in your house, it’s sometimes very difficult to get them to leave”.
Tokayev appeared to further bolster his position by backing acting prime minister Alikhan Smailov to take on the job permanently on Tuesday — a nomination that won the unanimous support of lawmakers.
Former national security committee chief Karim Masimov — a key Nazarbayev ally viewed as perpetuating the retired president’s influence over the government — was arrested on treason charges Saturday in connection with the unrest.
Even if Nazarbayev — the son of shepherds who rose through the communist party’s ranks — is now being sidelined politically, dislodging his family’s extensive interests in Central Asia’s largest economy may take time.
In a significant move Tuesday, Tokayev announced plans to bring an end to a widely criticised private recycling monopoly linked to Nazarbayev’s youngest daughter, Aliya Nazarbayeva, 41.
“This should be done by a state organisation, like in other countries,” he said of the scheme.
But middle daughter Dinara and her husband Timur Kulibayev control Halyk, the largest commercial bank, and are among the richest people in the country. Kulibayev is moreover a key player in the flagship oil sector.
Oldest daughter Dariga Nazarbayeva’s political career, mainly in the rubber-stamp legislature, has been marked by a series of controversial statements and perceptions of an abrasive style.
The 58-year-old’s reported business interests are also rumoured to be extensive.
Leaks of offshore financial data and a High Court challenge in London have meanwhile revealed the extent of her family’s foreign property holdings — part of a trend of capital leaving that country that Nazarbayev officially discouraged while president.
Many residents of Almaty credited the CSTO as a stabilising force that had helped Tokayev gain control over the situation after spending several days inside as gunfire echoed around the city.
Roza Matayeva, a 45-year-old English teacher, got used to tuning in to her radio during the five-day internet blackout in Kazakhstan’s financial hub that ended briefly Monday morning before the city of 1.8 million went offline again at lunchtime.
News that the Moscow-led bloc had agreed to Tokayev’s request to send a detachment “brought relief and hope that the situation will be decided for the best in the near future,” she told AFP.
“I welcome cooperation with Russia. I think there is no threat to our sovereignty.”
Tim Cook received $98.73 million in total compensation in Apple’s fiscal 2021
The sum included $82.35 million in stock awards, a $12 million bonus tied to performance targets and a $3 million base salary
He reportedly earned $14.8 million in salary in 2020
Apple CEO Tim Cook’s compensation ballooned to nearly $100 million in 2021, a sixfold increase from the prior year.
The 61-year-old executive, who reportedly earned $14.8 million in 2020, received $98.73 million in total compensation in Apple’s fiscal 2021, according to an SEC filing published Thursday. The company’s fiscal year began in September 2020 and ran through September 2021.
Of this amount, $82.35 million came from stock awards. The sum also included a base salary of $3 million and a $12 million bonus for hitting Apple’s performance targets.
Cook also received $1.39 million in other compensation, including $712,488 in personal air travel, $630,630 in security, a $17,400 contribution to his 401(k) plan, $2,964 in life insurance premiums and $23,077 in vacation cash-out.
Despite the negative effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and supply chain issues, Apple reported 33% revenue growth and more than $365 billion in sales. The increase in annual sales reportedly stemmed from the strong demand over the past two years as consumers working from home splurge on upgrades.
Cook became CEO of Apple in August 2011 after the company’s late founder Steve Jobs stepped down. Jobs died of pancreatic cancer that October.
In 2021, Apple marked the 10th anniversary of Cook’s leadership as CEO.
In September last year, Cook reportedly received 333,987 restricted stock units, in his first stock grant since 2011 as part of a long-term equity plan. He will be eligible to receive additional units in 2023.
A report by Reuters noted that Cook’s 2021 pay was 1,447 times that of the average Apple employee.
In 2021, the median pay for employees was $68,254. In 2020, the median pay was $57,783, 256 times Cook’s salary, according to the publication.
Cook, who has already donated tens of millions of dollars to various charities, previously stated he plans to give away most of his fortune before he dies.
Cook’s net worth was $1.5 billion as of Tuesday, according to a Forbes estimate.
Prior to being named CEO, Cook was Apple’s senior vice president of worldwide operations. At the time, he was earning $500,000 per year. When he became CEO of Apple in 2011, Cook’s salary increased to $900,000 per year.
Between 2011 and 2020, Cook reportedly received $963.5 million in total compensation.
Apple CEO Tim Cook attends Apple’s “Ted Lasso” season two premiere event red carpet at the Pacific Design Center, in West Hollywood, California, July 15, 2021Photo: AFP / VALERIE MACON
The United Nations said Tuesday it needed $5 billion in aid for Afghanistan in 2022 to avert a humanitarian catastrophe and offer the ravaged country a future after 40 years of suffering.
In its biggest-ever single-country appeal, the UN said $4.4 billion (3.9 billion euros) was needed within Afghanistan, while a further $623 million was required to support the millions of Afghans sheltering beyond its borders.
The UN said 22 million people inside Afghanistan and a further 5.7 million displaced Afghans in five neighbouring countries needed vital relief this year.
“A full-blown humanitarian catastrophe looms. My message is urgent: don’t shut the door on the people of Afghanistan,” said UN aid chief Martin Griffiths.
“Help us scale up and stave off wide-spread hunger, disease, malnutrition and ultimately death.”
Since the Taliban hardline Islamist movement seized control of Afghanistan in mid-August, the country has plunged into financial chaos, with inflation and unemployment surging.
Washington has frozen billions of dollars of the country’s assets, while aid supplies have been heavily disrupted.
Afghanistan also suffered its worst drought in decades in 2021.
Without the aid package, “there won’t be a future”, Griffiths told reporters in Geneva.
The Taliban authorities said the aid appeal for suffering Afghans was “very needed”.
“But at the same time I would like to say the need is for all this assistance approved in the past to be delivered during this harsh winter,” senior Taliban leader and the group’s designated UN representative, Suhail Shaheen, told AFP.
He said the inflow of funds would also help in the functioning of the now dilapidated banking system, adding that any cash coming into the country will help rein in the inflation.
The UN said $4.4 billion (3.9 billion euros) was needed within Afghanistan to avert humanitarian disasterPhoto: AFP / Mohd RASFAN
“The banks are not working properly so there is also a need to control the inflation and that can be controlled when dollars … hard currency come to Afghanistan,” Shaheen said.
Griffiths said the appeal, if funded, would help aid agencies ramp up the delivery of food and agriculture support, health services, malnutrition treatment, emergency shelters, access to water and sanitation, protection and education.
An estimated 4.7 million people will suffer from acute malnutrition in 2022, including 1.1 million children with severe acute malnutrition.
Griffiths said that without humanitarian aid, distress, deaths, hunger and further mass displacement would follow, “robbing the people of Afghanistan of the hope that their country will be their home and support, now and in the near term”.
However, if international donors come forward, “we will see the opportunity for an Afghanistan which may finally see the fruits of some kind of security.”
Griffiths said the security situation for humanitarian organisations in Afghanistan was probably better now than for many years, adding that the staff in the ministries in Kabul largely remained the same as before the Taliban takeover.
He said the UN Security Council’s move in December to help humanitarian aid reach desperate Afghans, without violating international sanctions aimed at isolating the Taliban, had made the operating environment for donors and humanitarians on the ground much more comfortable.
The money will go to 160 NGOs plus UN agencies delivering aid. Some will be used to pay frontline workers such as healthcare staff — but not via the Taliban administration.
Around eight million children could miss out on their education because teachers largely have not been paid since August, Griffiths said.
UN refugees chief Filippo Grandi said the aid package’s goal was to stabilise the situation within Afghanistan, including for internally displaced people, thereby preventing a further flood of migrants fleeing across the country’s borders.
“That movement of people will be difficult to manage, in the region and beyond, because it will not stop at the region,” he said.
“If those efforts are not successful, we will have to ask for $10 billion next year, not $5 billion.”