When you hear that the company Soul Machines makes digital people, your first thought might be that it is some kind of slogan, and that the company in some way makes human beings more digitally active. But that would be wrong. The company literally makes digital people, like highly advanced avatars, that can learn, coach, advise and even speak in different languages. In a very real way, that means Soul Machines is putting a human face — or lots of human faces — on the connected economy.
The most visible deployment of Soul Machines’ tech has been through the World Health Organization (WHO), where a digital person named Florence has been busy helping people quit smoking and dispelling myths about COVID-19. The company’s tech is also being used by Nestlé Toll House, where a cookie coach named Ruth helps bakers create better chocolate chip cookies, and by Maryville University, where digital coaches named Emma and Mya help students with such topics as financial aid and personal assessments — just to name a few examples.
The Impersonal Made Personal, With Fake People
While talking to what amounts to a fake person might seem a bit impersonal, in a conversation with PYMNTS CEO Karen Webster, Soul Machines Co-Founder and Chief Business Officer Greg Cross said the opposite is true — especially when it comes to enabling certain kinds of communication.
“People actually prefer to speak to digital people in cases where they fear judgment,” he said. “As humans, we don’t like speaking to real bankers. We don’t like talking to people about our money problems or how we manage or mismanage our money, and we fear rejection when we apply for a mortgage or a loan. One of the things that we’ve seen over and over again is that in any use case that might involve some form of judgment — like asking for a loan — customers prefer to speak to digital people.”
Trust Me, I’m A Robot
In addition to enabling difficult conversations between consumers and brands or institutions, Cross said that one of Soul Machines’ primary goals is to help build trust between people and machines, which feeds into the idea of putting a human face on the connected economy. As an example, he points to YUMI, the digital person used by skincare company SK-II. Not only can YUMI field questions about skin that consumers might not be comfortable asking human associates, but it can also help guide them to the products that best suit their needs. It adds a missing component to the online shopping experience, taking it beyond the simple “add to cart” functionality and making transactions much more interactive.
Cross calls this extra element “democratizing personal experiences,” and says Soul Machines can deliver at a scale that’s simply not possible with human employees — even to the point of filling a gap in an overburdened healthcare industry and education system.
“You know, in healthcare and education, we don’t even train enough doctors and teachers anymore,” he said. “So this concept of digital people being able to democratize personal experiences means that people can interact and get personal attention and specialized knowledge in a way that has not been possible before.”
One day, Cross can imagine a world in which a digital person could guide consumers through a virtual version of their favorite boutique in a city across the world. Such a world may not be all that far off, he said.
“A lot of the enabling technologies are coming together at an incredibly rapid rate,” he said. “We’re seeing things like the progression of artificial intelligence from machine learning to deep learning. We’re seeing conversational AI progress from natural language processing to natural language generation. We’re seeing synthetic voices capable of injecting emotion and prosody into them. The work we’re doing with autonomous animation, the deployment of 5G networks, and the miniaturization of augmented reality and virtual reality are all converging.”
At the current rate of technological advancement, Cross expects to see more advanced interactive digital people coming online within three to five years, perhaps even as life coaches or companions. Of course, should digital people start playing such roles in our lives, Cross is well aware of the ethical and regulatory issues that may arise. In fact, Soul Machines is very concerned with advocating for the ethical deployment of AI to ensure that the tech is rolled out with the least amount of friction and the greatest adherence to privacy and other ethical concerns.
That’s why he said Soul Machines finds it necessary to be transparent about the fact that the interactions enabled by this technology are with digital, not real, people.
“We think it’s really important that as a society we spend as much time thinking and talking about things like AI and data privacy, the ethical use of artificial intelligence and the regulatory environment for artificial intelligence as we do about putting it to use and making it work for us,” Cross concluded. “There are so many lessons we can take from the social media era that highlight the need to be even more cautious and thoughtful in the AI era.”
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