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Meet the companies using technology to imitate humans

AI avatar creating company Soul Machines has announced that yet another New Zealand business is trying out its digital human technology.

It has created a digital avatar named Will for energy company Vector to help it educate primary school kids within Vector’s Auckland electricity network about the energy sector. 

Will was made using Soul Machines’ now well-renown ‘Artificial Nervous System’ that works by using an animation platform to mimic the way the human brain and nervous system work, making the digital creation incredibly lifelike.

He can interact with kids from any kind of device and answers and poses questions (such as ‘how tall is a wind turbine?’) to help them to learn about renewable energies, such as geothermal, solar and wind. 

Vector chief digital officer Nikhil Ravishankar says the most fascinating part of the experience has been seeing the kids’ reactions to Will.

“The way they [children] look at the world is so creative and different, and Will really captured their attention. Using a digital human is a very compelling method to deliver new information to people, and I have a lot of hope in this technology as a means to deliver cost-effective, rich, educational experiences into the future.”

Soul Machines chief business officer Greg Cross says we will start to see more digital teachers like Will entering the education space, who can address growing teacher shortages, as well as inequality in education (like better accessing those living in remote communities).

“Creating one of the world’s first digital teachers has been one of the company’s most exciting assignments,” Cross says. “The opportunity to see digital interactions with children in the classroom has been a fantastic part of this project with the next generation of Vector’s users.”

Will joins the ranks of a growing army of digital humans created by Soul Machines, including one developed for the NDIS in Australia called Nadia and Sophie, a digital avatar created for Air New Zealand.

Here are some other intriguing examples of companies using tech to replicate the parts of us that make us human.

  1. Faceme

Faceme’s digital humans

Another New Zealand AI company, Faceme, has been behind the creation of digital humans you may have come across: one called Josie for ASB Bank and a digital human called Vai for the Ministry for Primary Industries. Faceme described Josie to Stuff as being a “personalised, human-like interface powered by artificial intelligence that “audio analytics and computer vision capabilities to be aware of her surroundings and the people speaking to her”. However, looks-wise, the digital humans come across a bit less realistic than the eerily human digital avatars of that of Soul Machines.

  1. Cubic Motion


It’s not just customer service companies that are getting creepily realistic avatars – the gaming industry is getting amongst the action, too. Cubic Motion is a company specialising in motion capture and animation technology, and it recently opened up its technology platform to game developers to help their digital facial animations become more realistic. It also created a hyper-realistic digital human called ‘Siren’, which will be used by the companies behind Fortnite and other popular games to perfect their real-time image capture. So where is this technology heading? Cubic Motion executive chairman Andy Wood reckons that in two years from now, every person could access technology to create and puppet their own digital body double in virtual reality from their home. Think the Sims, except real life.

  1. ObEN

Nikhil Jain, co-founder of ObEN, and his ‘personalised AI’ 

Ever wish you could be in two places at once? A California-based start-up called ObEN has you covered. It creates digital replicas of people that can be trained to complete tasks that they don’t have time for, or are incapable of doing. Its CEO Nikhil Jain says of the replicas, “I don’t speak Chinese, but my personal AI can.” The replica 3D avatars resemble their real-life counterparts in form and voice, plus have just enough intelligence to perform – for now, at least – simple tasks such as reading out loud and celebrity-fan interactions (the tech is currently being harnessed in the Korean pop scene to better connect pop stars to their fans).

  1. Voicery


There may not be an avatar component to it, but San Francisco-based start-up Voicery creates customised digital voices that sound like actual humans and not a computer. Unlike the computerised, tinny voices you’re likely to have heard on many a customer service call, Voicery’s AI-synthesised voices are intended to sound human and convey carefully designed emotions that have been personalised to reflect a company’s brand. And as more of people’s interactions edge away from visual towards the visual (think Echo and Google Home) the tone and cadence of a company’s voice may just become the new face of their brand. On its site, you can take a quiz to guess which voices are human and which voices are a machine – and the results may surprise you.

  1. CGI influencers

Lil Miquela

In a very weird, very 2018 trend, there have been a crop of Instagram accounts pop up where the some accounts look like they’re a human, but are actually 100 percent digitally manufactured (and not real). What’s more, they’re even picking public fights with each other: earlier this year, a CGI influencer called Bermuda hacked the account of another CGI influencer, Lil Miquela, who has over a million followers. Miquela was later linked to Brud, a Los Angeles-based start-up specialising in “robotics, artificial intelligence and their applications to media businesses”. More surprisingly, the CGI influencers are commandeering some cash and status, just like human influencers. Diesel, Moncler and Prada among the brands that have collaborated with the digital creations. It truly is strange times we live in.

Elly is Idealog's editor and resident dog enthusiast. She enjoys travelling, tea, good books, and writing about exciting ideas and cool entrepreneurs.

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