PRESS: Is AI’s Next Evolution to Digital Humans?

by PYMTS | February 27, 2018

What would you do if you met a digital human?

It is not an idle question, nor are we asking how you would handle yourself if you suddenly landed in an alternative universe surrounded by robots and avatars.

As it turns out, digital humans are already among us.

Autodesk users have been interacting with them since the end of last year, when calling into customer support. Travelers on Air New Zealand have been utilizing the services of its digital travel concierge for a little more than six months.

Australians with disabilities are now able to work with a digital human named Nadia, designed to help users better navigate the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) and find the information they need. Nadia can read users’ emotions by “watching” their faces – not to mention give them the experience of talking to a celebrity, sort of: Nadia’s voice is provided by Academy Award-winning actress Cate Blanchett.

Very soon, the banking customers of NatWest will meet Cora, their new personal banking assistant, who will look them in the eye as she talks to them and helps them along their financial journeys.

So, what do all of these digital humans have in common?

A company called Soul Machines™, which is building what it believes the next generation of interactive, conversational artificial intelligence (AI) will look like.

Because, according to Soul Machines™’ chief business officer, Greg Cross, they will actually have to look like something. The age of AI, he said, will only become truly useful when the machines are familiar to the people who use them.

That will mean they will have to do better than just sound like us – they will need to look like us, too, he said.

To that end, the company has developed what it refers to as the world’s first Virtual Nervous System, from which it painstakingly renders the visually responsive, three-dimensional “virtual humans” – human-like avatars – that can interact “face-to-face with customers.”

“We actually believe that, in time, all assistants will need to have a human face, because as humans, we are programmed at a DNA level to want to be able to look at someone when they are talking to us,” Cross said.

Facing the Conversation

The problem today with automated communication, Cross noted, is that it tends to feel a bit stiff and, well, robotic. The consumer’s experience is not only not enhanced – in some cases, it can even be actively worse than it was before.

And that, said Cross, is a big problem.

As he pointed out, anyone who wants to use a conversational interface to connect a human being and a smart machine basically has to solve for two issues. First, it has to be able to build a “highly personal and customized interaction for the customer. Then, it has to make sure that interactions can keep expanding – and that is because the AI is learning, and thus interacting more efficiently.”

The Power of  “Face-to-Face” Interactions

The intent, Cross noted, is not to trick the user into believing the avatar they are speaking to is a real person. The firms they work with across a variety of verticals, he said, make no effort to disguise the fact that customers are talking to a virtual human. Air New Zealand customers know they are talking to an AI avatar when they are dealing with the concierge service.

As Cross maintained, there is no need to hide it, because putting a literal face on the technology only makes the interaction that much better. Customers actually like talking to a visual avatar – after all, Cross noted, they already tend to think of Alexa as a “she” instead of an “it.”

“We believe it is a much more personalized customer experience,” he said. “From here, we get to a position where customers can really have a more intimate experience, because we are better able to create and convey the complex range of emotions the human face can convey.”

Moreover, he noted, the inclusion of a facial focal point makes some of the behaviors of the AI more palatable for human consumers.  For example, he noted, customers often don’t like the idea of a device using its camera to “scan” their face to read data about their mood – they tend to find it “creepy.” But the exact same activity doesn’t read as off-putting scanning when done by a virtual human – instead, it reads as the AI looking at the customer.

Which is why, Cross pointed out, the firm is building so many virtual humans for so many partners.

Putting a Face to a Name

As of this week, NatWest has announced that it will be taking the “digital human concept for a ride to help cater to their consumers’ customer service needs in regard to getting answers to basic banking queries.”

At the start of 2017, the bank deployed a text-based chatbot named  “Cora,” which already can handle 200 basic banking queries and now holds 100,000 conversations a month. The goal of the partnership is two-fold, Cross noted. First, he said they are hoping to help Cora transfer all of those basic banking skills into the face-to-face personal interactions. That entails more than just a direct transfer of text-based conversational platform, because the translations are not exactly 1-1.

“People talking face-to-face use very different language than when they are texting,” Cross observed.

But beyond merely adopting Cora’s current skill set, he noted, the bigger goal and vision is to expand the universe of what she can do in cooperation with the customer as “they get to know each other better.”

“The end goal is to get Cora to a point where she can be a consumer’s personal banker – that is the hope for this digital human, that the more one uses it, the more helpful it is going to get,” Cross said. “That is the promise for the future in the interaction.” 

What’s Next

Cross and the team at Soul Machines™ know a thing or two about avatars. The amazing – if complicated – thing, Cross said, is that they are not developing this technology in any single direction, so much as they are building emotional content for these avataric smartbots, which can then spread those benefits over a range of use cases.

One of their avatars, Baby X, now has a body and can realistically move his arms and legs, meaning the world of gestural communication is opening up to the digital human being built in the very near future.

The grander vision, Cross noted, is to develop a series of tools that can be used so that everyone can have the customer-built digitized assistant they want or need, offered up freely to third parties.

But they are building it out to do some really different things. For example, Cross noted, they are currently using their Virtual Nervous System to construct a virtual human for someone who is no longer alive: specifically, an art grandmaster who has been dead for over 100 years.

“What we are looking at is creating a digital grandmaster artist,” he said. “So that someone at their favorite art gallery or museum can be standing in front of one of the great paintings of the world, having a digital version of that artist explaining the work.”

So, what would you do if you met a digital person? You might learn something, organize your finances, book a trip, get tech support or even meet the digital ghost of a great mind from generations past.

If Soul Machines™ has its way, that’s just scratching the surface.

PRESS: NZ can’t afford to fall behind in the AI revolution

by Kip Brook | Make Lemonade | March 1, 2018

Auckland – The head of New Zealand’s leading artificial intelligence (AI) company Soul Machines™ has issued a plea to New Zealand corporate companies not to fall behind in the global development of AI, the latest tech industrial revolution.

Greg Cross, chief business officer for Soul Machines™, says jumping on the AI bandwagon is a big challenge and a big opportunity for New Zealand companies.

“It will be fundamental to the competitiveness of our big industries going forward and currently there is not a lot of evidence that our corporates are experimenting and innovating at this point,” he says.

Cross is one of 20 top speakers at AI Day the biggest artificial intelligence (AI) event ever to be held in New Zealand later this month. The event will be held in Auckland on March 28. Other speakers include Microsoft’s Steve Guggenheimer, IBM’s Adam Cutler and Amazon’s Alayna Van Dervort.

The conference has been organised by NewZealand.AI and the AI Forum NZ, which is part of the NZTech Alliance, bringing together 14 tech communities, more than 560 organisations and more than 100,000 employees to help create a more prosperous New Zealand underpinned by technology.

Cross’s Auckland-based company Soul Machines™ makes artificial intelligence human avatars that are emotionally responsive. They have built eight digital humans and are building about 20 more in the next 12 months.

“These avatars are bringing a whole new level to online customer service,” he says.

“Our digital humans are avatars with a central nervous system that can be mapped to show how they respond. The machines will be more useful to us and more natural to interact with.

“Kiwis are going to be spending more and more time interacting with these digital human-like creations. An enormous amount of detail goes into making all aspects of these avatars and we really focused on making a difference to the way we live our lives.

“We are going to spend more of our time interacting with AI systems, robots and machines such as self-driving cars. To be more like us these machines will need to be emotionally engaging in a way that we are capable of forming a relationship with them.

“The core theory behind our technology is our faces are the mirror image of our brain. You can’t create a realistic face without creating models of the human brain as well,” Cross says.

“Our avatars also have a breathing model because when we speak as human beings, we have to manage our sentences based on when we have to take a breath, so our tone of voice or expression on our face may change slightly.”

Artificial intelligence had reached a tipping point and business leaders were not aware of the changes it would bring to the economy and society, Cross says.

“These human avatar assistants are reinventing the way organisations serve customers online. Some businesses really realise the size and the scale of the impact this is going to have.”

“AI is the next industrial revolution and Kiwi businesses had to act quickly to survive it. Companies at the leading edge of artificial intelligence are few and far between in New Zealand,” Cross says.

Meanwhile, AI Forum executive director Ben Reid says soon after the AI-Day event the AI Forum will be releasing a major research report on the impact of AI in New Zealand which identifies the opportunities and challenges for our country.

Note: See a recent presentation Cross made in Taipei.