PRESS: Greg Cross wants your next employee to be an AI-powered digital human

Article by Jordan Teicher for INDUSTRIOUS issue 3 – IBM’s Quarterly magazine about the latest trends in the industry

“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 lifelike. They hear and see the people with whom 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.

“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.”

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. 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.

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.”

 

HOT OFF THE PRESS: New Zealand startup Soul Machines™ puts human face on AI

Company founded by ‘Avatar’ animator will bring its digital humans to Asia next year

Article by Akane Okutsu | Nikkei Asian Review | October 02, 2018

 

 Soul Machines’ digital humanoid Lia shows lifelike expressions that would be hard for a physical robot to match Soul Machines™’ digital humanoid Lia shows lifelike expressions that would be hard for a physical robot to match

 

TOKYO — “Do you need me to tell everyone your life story?” asks Lia as she appears on a screen, offering to introduce the speaker. Her wrinkles and moving eyes make her look like a real person, but she is a digital humanoid.

New Zealand-based startup Soul Machines™ has so far created 15 such humanoids — disembodied screen presences — employed mainly as customer service assistants. They work in seven countries for companies including Royal Bank of Scotland and Australia and New Zealand Banking Group.

The company looks to produce thousands of digital humanoids in the next three years, with plans to expand into Asia for the first time in the next 12 months.

In Asia, Soul Machines™ will launch projects with companies in Japan and China in the first half of next year. It also wants to expand to Southeast Asian countries like Singapore.

“We tend to look for industries where we know they are going to go through substantial change, such as banking, autos, health care and education,” Chief Business Officer Greg Cross told the Nikkei Asian Review in an interview on the sidelines of FIN/SUM 2018, an annual financial technology summit in Tokyo sponsored by Nikkei. Cross declined to disclose the partners’ names or their industries.

 

 

“The Chinese market is hugely exciting,” Cross said, as “there are opportunities to leapfrog industry infrastructure” that is relatively underdeveloped, lacking sufficient access to health or financial services.

“Over the next few years we would expect our team to grow to as many as 200 to 300 people to support the business,” Cross said.

Entry into Asia means making humanoids that look Asian, and adjusting their social behaviors to fit the host cultures, Cross said.

One of these humanoids can be created and implemented for “less than half a million dollars,” according to Cross. The company charges annual subscription fees based on factors such as the number of personalities and languages, as well transaction fees that vary with the number of conversations.

The startup was co-founded two years ago by Mark Sagar, who won sci-tech Academy Awards for the films “King Kong” and “Avatar.” It has attracted investors including Hong Kong-based Horizon Ventures, as well as founders of Facebook and Google-owned AI company DeepMind, the developer of the AlphaGo program.

Unlike competitors that feed prerecorded content into a chat box, “we are actually autonomously animating these digital characters using brain models to synthesize human behavior in real time,” Cross said in his speech at FIN/SUM.

Soul Machines™’ digital assistants use existing artificial intelligence engines such as IBM’s Watson, which supports several languages. The company also trains its AIs to understand different English accents.

Going beyond software, the Soul Machines™ team includes neuroscientists to build artificial brains and nervous systems. Artificial digital versions of hormones like adrenaline and oxytocin run through these systems, making the humanoids act human.

“There are some jobs that digital humans and AI can do better than real humans,” Cross told Nikkei in an interview, mentioning customer support. Humanoids become practical for providing personalized services to a large number of users, collecting information and learning in the process. They are better than humans at providing specialized information and analysis based on vast quantities of data, he added.

 

 Greg Cross, Soul Machines’ chief business officer, says humanoids beat humans at some tasks (Photo by Takuya Fujisawa) Greg Cross, Soul Machines™’ chief business officer, says humanoids beat humans at some tasks (Photo by Takuya Fujisawa)

 

Soul Machines™ continues research and development on humanoids that are even more lifelike. Cross said the company is “making our virtual nervous system smarter, teaching it how to learn, teaching it how to cooperate, teaching it things like social learning patterns.”

The idea is that the more humanoids resemble humans, the better they can interact with and be trusted by them. “If you are on a self-driving car, how do you trust that machine?” asked Cross, suggesting that an artificial chauffeur may help.

Humanoids would also benefit from technological developments by other companies, such as improvements in the accuracy of natural-language processing. Even physical humanoid robots are possible if other companies develop technology that imitates the movements of human facial muscles, Cross said.

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