story by Jihee Junn for Idealog | 8, September 2017
New Zealand company Soul Machines is on a mission to reverse engineer the brain and humanise AI interactions. And it’s making very good progress. Jihee Junn explores the rise of – and potential uses for – its ‘digital humans’.
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Extract from the article:
As the name suggests, Soul Machines creates emotionally intelligent, lifelike avatars (or, as it prefers to call them, ‘digital humans’) that act as a visual interface for customer service chatbots, virtual assistants and a host of other practical uses.
While artificial intelligence (AI) has become a term even the most technologically inept among us have become familiar with, emotional intelligence (EI) – the capacity to identify and manage one’s own emotions and the emotions of others – has been a term applied more commonly among psychologists than in computer programming circles. But as robotics and automation become increasingly ingrained into the workings of society, experts have realised that to extend the possibilities of AI, they must equip these technologies with the capability to form engaging interactions with humans. In fact, the inclusion of EI is what distinguishes Soul Machines from the rest of the pack: its avatars can recognise emotions by analysing an individual’s facial and vocal expressions in real time, while reciprocating these reactions with an unprecedented level of human-like response. Like AI, EI develops through experience – the more it interacts with you, the more emotionally sentient it gets.
These lifelike interactions can most notably be seen in several demonstrations of BabyX run by Soul Machines CEO and co-founder Dr. Mark Sagar. With a past career as Weta Digital’s special projects supervisor for blockbusters like Avatar, King Kong and Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Dr. Sagar joined the University of Auckland’s Laboratory for Animate Technologies in 2012 where he began to develop the BabyX technology that now underpins Soul Machines. BabyX, an interactive virtual infant prototype, appears on screen as a rosy cheeked, strawberry blonde, doe-eyed toddler. Just like a real child, BabyX whimpers and cries when it’s insulted or ignored, and smiles and coos when it’s encouraged or entertained.
While the technology behind Soul Machines has been a project several years in the making, it’s still a newcomer to the commercial realm, having only formally launched in 2016 after receiving a $7.5 million investment from Hong Kong-based Horizon Ventures. From the start, the company has attracted a huge amount of attention. Elon Musk’s biographer Ashlee Vance visited Sagar as part of his technology show Hello World; Bill Reichert, entrepreneur and managing director of Garage Technology Ventures, listed Soul Machines as one of the startups that impressed him the most during a recent visit to New Zealand; and in PwC’s 2017 Commercialising Innovation Report, Soul Machines was again cited as a prime example of “leading the way in the AI space”.