PRESS: A brave new world of digital humans...

Excerpt from story by Eva Xiao | TECH IN ASIA | December 13, 2017

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.

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.

Greg Cross, Chief Business Officer, Soul Machines

Greg Cross, Chief Business Officer, Soul Machines

“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.”

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.

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