CMO: How virtual humans could transform the brand experience

The rise of artificial intelligence is bringing with it the advent of a new age of robotic humans. We look at their impact on service and engagement

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Excerpt from story by Brad Howarth (CMO) | 28 November 2017

For years, marketers have talked about brands as having personalities. Now they have the tools to bring those brands to life – virtually at least.

Rapid developments in artificial intelligence (AI) are being combined with Academy Award-winning animation skills to create virtual humans that are the closest yet to flesh and blood. And for brands, that offers the opportunity to put a very human-looking face on a corporate body.

One of the latest iterations of these virtual humans comes from Auckland-based company, Soul Machines, whose co-founder and CEO, Mark Sagar’s ground-breaking work in computer-generated faces on films, King Kong and Avatar, was recognised with consecutive Oscars. Now Soul Machines is applying its skills to the commercial world through the creation of virtual humans as the new face of brands.

According to Soul Machines’ chief business officer, Greg Cross, virtual humans give consumer-facing organisations an opportunity to completely change the economics of highly-personalised service.

“When you interact with one of our virtual humans as a virtual concierge or a virtual customer service agent, it is going to be a highly personalised experience,” Cross says.

“These virtual employees are going to remember you every time you interact with them. They will have built up a profile of your personality, of what products and services you love, and which ones you don’t. They will have knowledge of problems you have had and whether they have been resolved to your satisfaction.

“What that means is we now have the ability to deliver highly personalised service on a very, very large scale using these virtual employees.”

The technology is being trialed at numerous organisations in banking, technology, healthcare, education, and transport. It has also been used to create Sophie, a pilot customer interaction project for Air New Zealand.

“The early customers we are working with really see their first virtual employee as an extension of their brand,” Cross says. “They go through a process of designing their first virtual employee in the same way they would select a celebrity to represent their brand in a television advertisement.”

While the quality of the animations developed by Soul Machines is incredibly lifelike, it is the AI model behind its virtual humans that brings them to life. Cross says this is based around mimicking human thought process and brain models.

“Mark [Sagar] asked ‘what if I built biologically-inspired models of different parts of the human brain, and wired all this together into a virtual nervous system?’,” Cross says. “Could we create emotionally responsive, human-like, engaging characters? And that is what we have done.

“As best we know we are the only company in the world that can bring these digital characters to life using a virtual nervous system and neural networks that continuously learn.”

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Kirrily Denny