Nikhil Jain, co-founder of ObEN, and his ‘personalized AI.’ Image credit: ObEN
“What if there was a copy of me that could interact with my kids and talk to them?”
Nikhil Jain asked himself this question, after yet another situation where he was torn between working on his business and being with his family. “Whenever I travel, my kids would miss me a lot because they’re so used to having me around,” explains Jain, who travels to Asia once a month as CEO of ObEN, a California-based startup that creates humanoid avatars.
Coming up with a solution became the impetus for ObEN, which he co-founded in 2014 with Adam Zheng. The startup specializes in what it calls ‘personalized artificial intelligence’ or PAI. It’s a digital replica of yourself that can be trained to complete tasks that you don’t have time for – or are incapable of doing.
“You can train it to be useful,” says the Bombay-born CEO. “I don’t speak Chinese, but my personal AI can.”
Future-obsessed creatives and technologists alike have long been fascinated by the idea of robots that are so human-like, it’s impossible to distinguish them from homo sapiens. What companies like ObEN are creating is one step removed from that – there’s no physical body. Instead, a 3D avatar is imbued with a human form and voice, plus enough intelligence to perform – for now, at least – simple tasks: customer service queries, reading out loud, and celebrity-fan interactions.
AI has infinite time and can work with infinite fans.
ObEN is working with South Korean powerhouse SM Entertainment to create PAIs for its pantheon of K-pop superstars. In June, the two companies announced a Hong Kong-based joint venture called AI Stars Limited.
“Celebrities wish they could interact more with their fans,” explains Jain. “AI has infinite time and can work with infinite fans.”
Korea’s pop scene raked in US$4.7 billion in global sales last year, according to a Bloomberg report that cited statistics from the Korea Creative Content Agency. Popular K-pop groups are major moneymakers, such as boy band EXO, which sold more than 1 million copies of their album this year alone.
By working with celebrity agents and managers, ObEN can get access to data that’s not publicly available and create one-on-one Q&A sessions with celebrities. “A lot of fans want to know the local routine of the celebrity: what they eat for lunch, [who] their latest crush [is], what kind of movies they like,” he says.
ObEN plans to launch its first celebrity avatars by the middle of next year. Apart from collaborating with Korean pop stars, the startup is also working with celebrities in Bollywood – another lucrative entertainment market ObEN can tap for clients. By 2020, India’s film industry is expected to reach US$3.7 billion in revenue, according to consulting firm Deloitte.
One of Soul Machines’ digital humans. Photo credit: Soul Machines
The future of digital avatars, however, goes well beyond boosting productivity. By creating virtual versions of humans, both companies and users can gather more information about how people respond to their digital copies – and design their services accordingly.
In Jain’s case, he can review how his kids interact with his PAI while he’s away from home. “I can potentially see what my kids told my PAI and how my PAI responded to them,” he says.
Celebrities could also learn more about their fans through their digital selves.
The most emotionally engaged conversations we have are face-to-face conversations.
“As a fan, you make a lot of effort that is unacknowledged,” says John Zimmerman, professor at the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. “With Taylor Swift, you might listen to her music – but that’s unobserved by Taylor. You might read blogs [about] her, you might talk to friends about her.”
With the help of synthetic humans, however, celebrities could keep tabs on their fans’ activities and show their appreciation when they meet in person. As Zimmerman points out, “There’s no way for the celebrity to listen and sort of personalize their connection with an individual fan.”
Other AI companies are giving smart avatars even finer-grained sensibilities, such as minute facial expressions and emotional responsiveness. New Zealand-based Soul Machines, a startup spun off from the University of Auckland, has developed what it calls a ‘virtual nervous system,’ which is designed to mimic how chemical reactions – like a surge of dopamine – affect the human brain.
Ava, a customer service avatar Soul Machines developed for Autodesk. Image credit: Soul Machines
For instance, a sudden, loud noise might startle one of Soul Machine’s digital humans. If you smile at one, it will smile back at you, mirroring your temperament. Over time, the company’s humanoid avatars can start catering to your distinctive personality and behavior, whether you’re a middle-aged businesswoman or a 20-year-old college student.
“At the end of the day, as human beings, the most emotionally engaged conversations we have are face-to-face conversations,” Greg Cross, chief business officer at Soul Machines, tells Tech in Asia. “When we communicate face-to-face, we open a whole lot of new communicational channels – all the non-verbal communication channels.”
As humans interact with more machines in their daily lives, putting a face on AI will become increasingly important, he believes. “We see the human face as being an absolutely critical part of the human-machine interaction in the future.”
Greg Cross, chief business officer at Soul Machines. Photo credit: Soul Machines
In November, Soul Machines announced that it was working with 3D-design software maker Autodesk to create a 24/7 service agent, scheduled to launch in 2018. Other areas of interest include virtual trainers, healthcare providers, teachers, and even animated toys, allowing kids to talk with their favorite characters, says Cross.
A possible consequence of machines becoming more human-like is the potential for emotional manipulation. It’s not so hard to imagine a virtual sales agent guilt-tripping you into buying something, after all. But Cross explains the ways in which emotionally capable avatars can be used to help humans, such as those with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“If you look at human beings today, there’s a growing number of us [who] are depressed, who are on drugs, because we can’t deal with our own emotions. One of the areas [where we might] be able to make a difference is in creating support systems,” he shares.
For now, it’s too early to assess exactly how digital humans will affect society. Both ObEN and Soul Machines, for instance, haven’t launched public products yet and are still working with clients individually to sculpt the right avatar.
Artificial intelligence has also yet to master natural language understanding – chatbots today are still rudimentary and unconvincing. Overcoming the ‘uncanny valley’ – a term that describes the uneasiness people feel with confronted with almost, but not quite humanoid objects – is also a technical barrier that will take time to resolve.
Meanwhile, companies will have to work out the best way to monetize their virtual humans in both the short- and long-term. So far, startups are viewing digital humans as actors and actresses that need to be licensed out for different projects. Soul Machines also plans to charge clients both a subscription and conversation fee, depending on how many customers an avatar talks to.
As it becomes more interactive and more modeled on you, it kind of is you.
Another possibility is making digital humans accessible to third-party developers, who would pay a royalty in order to develop applications around a sports star or famous singer, for example.
“Actually, nobody knows,” says Chester Roh, referring to the commercial viability of celebrity avatars. Roh is the chief strategy officer at Reality Reflection, a virtual reality gaming and 3D human avatar startup in South Korea.
In order to render high-resolution digital humans and other complex 3D models, a lot of GPU (graphic processing unit) power is needed. That restricts accessibility as users can’t view them through their smartphones. Instead, they have to invest in high-end devices like HTC Vive virtual reality headsets.
“Because of low demand and hardware devices […] the industry is growing slowly,” Roh emphasizes.
Reality Reflection’s scanning facility. Photo credit: Reality Reflection
For instance, it takes about eight weeks for Soul Machines to create a high-definition copy of a human being – the goal is to be as realistic as possible. ObEN, on the other hand, has chosen the low-fidelity route, a trade-off that makes PAIs accessible via smartphone. Users should be able to create their own digital copy by just taking a selfie, says Jain.
That also allows for simple offline-to-online applications in the short term, like recording a duet with someone else’s avatar after scanning a QR code. ObEN is also working with WeChat, China’s most popular social app, to create a Facebook Spaces-esque app where 3D avatars can message and interact with their friends. Both Tencent and HTC Vive’s VR accelerator HTC Vive X are ObEN investors.
Public figures, such as celebrities, could be especially vulnerable to avatar trolls or copycats.
Finally, all startups in the AI avatar business will have to grapple with challenges around intellectual property protection. As 3D models become increasingly life-like, the consequences of abuse or misappropriation will be severe.
Public figures, such as celebrities, could be especially vulnerable to avatar trolls or copycats. Even on an individual level, it can get hairy.
“Can an ex-boyfriend just keep a version of you that they [can] just keep talking to long after you’ve left them?” says Zimmerman. “Is that you? Is that yours to take with you? We don’t have any boundaries for this. As it becomes more interactive and more modeled on you, it kind of is you.”
At present, there’s no mature or battle-tested solution, though multiple companies in the space are eyeing blockchain technology. ObEN has teamed up with Project PAI, a non-profit organization whose blockchain could secure and authenticate celebrity avatars for the US startup.
“We are also trying to figure out how to protect our digital assets,” says Roh, explaining that Reality Reflection is also looking at blockchain tech to protect its 3D avatars. Even if someone doesn’t copy your model identically, they can easily create a different digital human using your work as the foundation of their model – just like plastic surgery.
It’s likely that new legal frameworks will have to be put in place to deal with this new generation of synthetic, virtual humans. If individuals can license their digital replica to a company, does that then bar them from using it for personal purposes or for their own business? The idea of digital property quickly becomes complicated when the property in question is you – or a version of you.
Developing new ethical standards and laws “is part of the process of our technical advances,” says Zimmerman. “We have to make mistakes and figure it out.”
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