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™.
“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.
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.”