After a series of delays, Avatar 2 will be released in theaters this month. James Cameron-directed epic sci-fi story and sequel to the first Avatar film from 2009.
The plot (minor spoiler alert!) revolves around the planet Pandora and its inhabitants the Na’vi. An earthly mining company extracts precious minerals there. For the journeys between Earth and Pandora, fast spaceships are used that can bridge the four light years in six years. For the passengers, this trip is much shorter as they experience the journey in a ‘frozen’ state.
Humans have developed a technique to create a being that is a genetic cross between man and the Na’vi, his so-called avatar. Humans can mentally connect to his/her avatar through this advanced technology, which allows him to control it while his own body sleeps.
Digital copies of humans
Expectations for this sequel are high as Avatar remains one of the highest grossing films of all time. The debut of the Avatar film was a high point in film history.
Designer Mark Sagar played an important role in this success. He had previously experimented extensively with ‘motion capture’ in the making of the film King Kong; the technique used to copy human movements into realistic animations and computer-generated objects. In this case: digital people.
Soul Machines give artificial intelligence an indistinguishable face and personality
In 2016, the two-time Oscar winner teamed up with serial entrepreneur Greg Cross to commercially market these digital humans. Cross is one of the pioneers of artificial intelligence, sold his first company to Apple and served as CEO of The Icehouse, one of the world’s leading incubators.
The best experts in deep learning, artificial intelligence and neuroscience work in the newly founded company SoulMachines together with psychologists and artists to bring computers to life. In other words: they give artificial intelligence a face and a personality that is indistinguishable from the real thing.
Will, the virtual teacher
During a trip to New Zealand I visited their headquarters in Auckland and spoke extensively with Cross. In recent years, the team has been able to develop virtual brain simulations that allow them to create an indistinguishable person who can communicate with you online.
I have seen many innovations in all my travels that left my mouth hanging open for a while, but never anything like this. I see what appear to me to be real people having a conversation with others from a screen. Only one is made of flesh and blood and the other is completely generated by extremely clever software.
One of the slightly older projects where Soul Machines has applied this is the virtual teacher Will, who teaches children about renewable energy. The picture is fascinating to watch because right from the start the children have no idea that they are not communicating with a flesh and blood human via the laptop.
Virtual brain simulation
This goes far beyond any chatbot. The current so-called AI systems, such as chatbot systems, are based on texts that are entered in advance. People write the scripts for it.
However, the applications that Cross and his team are working on can themselves create dynamic content based on data. This is a first look at a possible future where man and machine work seamlessly together, and the two may even merge. For people to trust machines, they must have feelings.
In one of the videos Cross showed me, he presents himself on a stage with behind him a large screen with one of the virtual characters on it. As he speaks, the image zooms in through the skin of the virtual woman until we see an image of her brain with all the neuron connections in it like a kind of spaghetti.
Suddenly, Cross claps her hands and we see the virtual image react by blinking her eyes as if startled; at the same time we see a certain part of her brain light up, exactly the part that also secretes serotonin in the human brain. This ‘virtual brain simulation’ ensures that the digital characters really learn which movements and facial expressions are associated with which emotions.
Platform for digital twins
Until now, these emotions are pre-programmed and the movements of the face or body are modeled using the motion capture technique. This technique, where a real person’s movements are digitized using photo, camera and sensor technology, is still extremely expensive. One minute of animation easily costs thirty thousand dollars.
I could have different digital Mennos do different video interviews
However, Soul Machines plans to offer this technology on a platform. After the initial cost and the cost of an annual license, it won’t cost you any more. So, for example, I could have different digital Mennos do different video interviews or give presentations.
Or a company buys a digital simulation and then turns it into dozens or even hundreds of independently operating virtual customer service agents, all of whom can communicate with real people on a highly personal and authentic level.
Human AI as a strategic advantage
To reinforce his words, he shows me how a company like Daimler is experimenting with Sarah’s virtual assistant that talks to customers. Once you’ve seen and experienced it, you’ll laugh at every next clumsy chatbot you come across. Daimler even sees the technology as a potential strategic asset and has taken a significant stake in Soul Machines.
Another customer is Arab abc Bank, headquartered in Bahrain. There, too, it is being investigated how a virtual customer service employee, in this case Fatema, can play a role. Soul Machines also collaborates with, among others, Google, Sony, Royal Bank of Scotland, PricewaterhouseCoopers, anz, Autodesk and Procter & Gamble.
By the way, Soul Machines’ technology is not just a solution for departments with human customer service representatives; she also allows companies to simulate their own influencers.
Together with cosmetics brand sk-ii, Soul Machines has said it has built the first fully virtual brand ambassador called Yumi. Powered by the voice platform Google Dialogflow, she provides beauty advice to consumers. Another digital influencer is Lil Miquela, who has over 2.9 million followers on Instagram alone.
Foresight in 1958
The visit to Soul Machines puts me at the forefront of AI development, an area we’ve probably only been paying attention to for a few years now. Nevertheless, the role of computer intelligence in the way we communicate, collaborate and organize our organizations has been debated for much longer.
As early as 1958, a fascinating article appeared in the Harvard Business Review in which the authors Leavitt and Whisler sketched a picture of what they thought organizations would look like thirty years later, in the eighties. According to the authors, the greatest effect would come from the new ‘information technology’.
They describe that concept as: technologies that enable us to process large amounts of information very quickly, which will result in advanced thinking models, and the use of statistics and mathematics to be able to make decisions based on the same large amount of information (read : : big data).
This already testifies to an enormous visionary capacity of the authors. But there is more.
Technology and innovation leading
Leavitt and Whisler envisioned sometime around 1980-1985 that a computer (they still refer to it as a “machine”) would be able to mimic the human brain so that it could take control of an organization. First, in the mid-1960s, a computer would become a chess master, to open the way for software that could handle complex problems and exist in a kind of coexistence with the human brain.
Leavitt and Whisler further predicted that the speed at which new knowledge is discovered and the pressure this places on organizations to translate it into practical applications would increase: ‘The pressure to reorganize to deal with the complex and fast-paced world will become very large. in the coming decades. Improvisations and adjustments within existing organizational structures are likely to prove insufficient; it is expected that there will be a radical change in how we structure organisations.’
An organization would certainly not be able to exist for another ten years without radical adaptations of products, processes and internal organization. A continuous carousel of technological and organizational change. This would mean that organizations would especially need scientists, programmers and highly creative and innovative people.
Managers should rather take on the role of ‘coordinators’: the intermediary who supplies the ideas of the scientists, programmers and innovators with the resources available in the organization to translate them into concrete results.
Another foresight. Will digital copies of people become indispensable in thirty years? Who knows. In any case, with that knowledge you look at Avatar 2 a little differently…