BLOG: This man wants your next employee to be an AI-powered digital human

June 28, 2018 | Written by: Jordan Teicher  | IBM Industries

Categorized: Artificial Intelligence | Media and Entertainment | Retail and Consumer Products

This story is part of Big Thinkers, a series of profiles on business leaders transforming industries with bold ideas.

“Humans can communicate in lots of ways,” said Greg Cross. “But when we actually want to have important conversations we always do those face to face.”

Cross, the CBO of Soul Machines™, practices what he preaches. Though he lives in New Zealand, he took time out of a brief business trip in New York to meet me in person at IBM’s office near Union Square. We gathered to talk about his company, whose mission is to make face-to-face conversations like ours part of the most common interactions we have today—namely, the interactions we have with intelligent machines.

“We’re heading into a world where we’re going to spend a lot more of our time interacting with machines. We have a fundamental belief that these machines can be more helpful to us if they’re more like us,” he said.

To do that, Soul Machines™’ team of AI researchers, neuroscientists, psychologists and artists are creating “digital humans”—fully autonomous, animated individuals that look and sound like real people. The key to their intelligence is a cloud-based virtual central nervous system called the Human Computing Engine, which sits atop IBM Watson and uses Watson Assistant.

When connected to that system, Soul Machines™’ digital humans are amazingly life-like. They hear and see the people with which they interact, and their conversations with those people are made emotive through nuanced facial expressions. For businesses, Cross said, digital humans can revolutionize the economics of customer service, giving them the ability to provide personalized and consistent care at scale.

A face, Cross said, is a “reflection of the heart and mind of an individual,” and it can be key to successful digital interactions with customers. In the years to come, he bets, businesses across industries will agree and make digital humans an integral part of their workforce.

“The question we wanted to explore was: What happens when you create a digital face? Will people engage with it? Will they find that digital face more engaging than a chatbot or a voice assistant? Our view is that, yes, of course they will. That’s ultimately the market and business development we’ve been going on,” Cross said.

 Rachel, a digital human created by Soul Machines. Rachel, a digital human created by Soul Machines™.

“It completely captured my imagination”

Cross has been a technology entrepreneur nearly his entire career. At 18, he dropped out of business school at the University of Waikato, and began an internship at the high tech manufacturer Trigon Packaging. Since then, he’s worked at technology startups in different industries all over the world. In 2007, he co-founded PowerbyProxi, a spin-out of the University of Auckland’s wireless power department, which developed high efficiency and high density wireless power products. The company sold to Apple last year.

“For me, there’s nothing more fun than taking on some sort of core technology or core idea, wrapping a team of people behind it, and exploring how you build a company around it. That’s still what gets me out of bed with a smile on my face,” he said.

Two years ago, Cross found his most recent opportunity to do just that when he met Dr. Mark Sagar, an Academy Award-winning animator who was then the director of the Laboratory for Animate Technologies at The University of Auckland. Cross had, in the past, seen Sagar present his work— a virtual animated baby called BabyX that learns and reacts like a real human infant. But when Sagar sat down with him one-on-one to show him the technology underlying his creation, Cross knew he had to get involved.

“It completely captured my imagination,” Cross said.

First steps

When Cross and Sagar first started thinking about how to turn the technology into a business, they drew up a list of half a dozen industries they knew were facing “quite significant disruption,” and began imagining how digital humans could help. They then started talking about digital humans at technology and industry conferences. Soon, business leaders eager to drive change in their industries wanted to talk with them.

“It’s like any new technology; it’s well understood that there’s an adoption curve. There are the early adopters and then there are those who never want to be first. We’re always very careful about making sure we’re speaking to the right people,” he said.

So far, it seems, Cross has found those people. This year, Soul Machines debuted its first crop of digital employees at Autodesk, Daimler Financial Services and NatWest. It’s still early days, Cross said, but the employees— Cora, Sarah, and Ava— are paving the way for a future in which digital humans will be an integral part of the way people interact with businesses.

“I like to think in five years we’ll create a very large population of digital humans who will be interacting with people and having hundreds of millions of conversations every day,” Cross said.

Imagining the future

Where might digital humans pop up next? Cross couldn’t talk about some of Soul Machines’ upcoming projects. But the appetite for next-generation customer service solutions, he said, is strong across a number of industries, including retail and telecommunications, and digital humans could find a productive place in all of them.

In a fast-paced, digitally-driven landscape, customers have little patience for endless call center queues and customer service departments with limited hours. Increasingly, they expect quick, seamless interactions at any time of the day or night with representatives that understand and remember their preferences and history.

“As real human beings, our memory has limits. If you’re dealing with 100 people a day, you’re not going to remember every single interaction. A digital person will,” Cross said.

At the moment, Soul Machines’ digital humans are making their mark in customer service. But Cross is already investigating a wide range of future applications for his company’s technology. He imagines digital humans one day teaching classes or providing medical care. Celebrities, he said, could enlist their own digital twin to perform tasks they can’t fit into their schedule. The possibilities, Cross said, are endless—and he’s exploring as many of them as possible.

“One day I can be sitting in a board room doing a presentation for a CEO of one of the largest banks or the largest tech companies in the world. Another day I can be sitting down with the biggest celebrities in the world,” he said. “It’s a huge amount of fun.”

NEWS: We are one of the 2018 Tech Pioneers!

We are excited to announce that Soul Machines™ has been selected as a 2018 Tech Pioneer by the World Economic Forum

“The Technology Pioneers cohort of 2018 brings together 61 early-stage companies from around the world that are pioneering new technologies and innovations ranging from the use of artificial intelligence in drug discovery, the development of autonomous vehicles, advancing cybersecurity and reducing food waste, to applying blockchain to a decentralized engagement platform.

In joining this community and the two-year journey where they become part of the Forum’s initiatives, activities and events, they bring cutting-edge insights and novel perspectives to world-critical discussions.”

— World Economic Forum

BLOG: High-tech AI helps make digital humans for social good

June 19, 2018 | Written by: Greg Cross

Published by IBM.  Categorized: AI/Watson | Computer Services

Artificial intelligence has received an extraordinary amount of hype from the media. Hollywood in particular has pushed a dystopian view—it’s science fiction that has an awful lot of fiction in the science.

We are heading into an era where we’ll be increasingly interfacing with artificial intelligence—as robots, machines, drones, self-driving cars, chatbots, etc. And because of the media’s AI hype, many people fear this future.

At Soul Machines™, we think that people will be more comfortable interacting with AI if these systems are actually more like us—if we can interact with these systems in natural ways, and over time, learn to trust and comfortably engage with them.

That’s why we’ve focused on creating digital humans.

Bringing AI systems to life with virtual neural networks

Soul Machines™ is a ground-breaking high-tech company of AI researchers, neuroscientists, psychologists, artists and innovative thinkers. Our mission is to reimagine how people connect with machines by creating incredibly life-like, emotionally responsive artificial humans with personality and character.

My business partner, Dr. Mark Sagar, has spent his life studying the human face. He won two Academy Awards for the incredible work he did on movies like Avatar, with James Cameron, and King Kong with Peter Jackson.

Building on his expertise, we’ve added AI to create a virtual nervous system that is made up of neural networks and machine learning—in effect, we’ve developed biologically-inspired models of different parts of the human brain.

To date, we’ve used this core technology to create AI systems—like Baby X and Rachel—that serve as a user interface to an AI platform. Our core technology, or Human Computing Engine, sits on top of IBM Watson and uses Watson Assistant (formerly Watson Conversation) as a key part of our dialog interface.

Addressing critical social needs with digital humans

The AI systems we create can be used on flat screens—like your smartphone or laptop—but can also be directly inserted into augmented reality (AR) or virtual reality (VR) environments. Since we build these systems in 3D, they can be projected as holographs without any further work.

The applications for these humanized AI systems are endless. For example, we’ve got a worldwide shortage of science teachers in our high schools. We can create digital tutors that can help kids get specialized knowledge about physics and chemistry as they do their homework. Doctors congregate in bigger cities where there are more people who can keep their practices functioning. As a result, rural and remote areas can find it difficult to provide adequate healthcare services. With our technology, we can create virtual doctors to ensure that these communities get the healthcare they need.

And that’s just the beginning. We’re about to start a project that will bring somebody who’s been dead for a couple hundred years back to life, so that they can talk about their work and their inspiration. With humanized AI systems, we can tell their life stories in a way that hasn’t been possible before.

That’s the wonderful thing about what I get to do for a living… it’s an incredibly creative world, limited only by our imagination.


VIDEO: Bloomberg Technology – Meet Ava, Autodesk’s New Virtual Assistant

Rachael Rekart – Director of Machine Assistance at Autodesk – discusses AVA, Autodesk’s virtual assistant, with Bloomberg’s Emily Chang.

(Source: Bloomberg)

“As we evolved AVA we partnered with Soul Machines™ that is a New Zealand tech company that essentially is working on studying human consciousness through AI and they have brought Ava to life, so to speak through, through the development of a digital avatar. This digital avatar for consumers can actually voice and video chat with our customers and recognise and respond to emotional cues.”

— Rachael Rekart – Director of Machine Assistant at Autodesk