In the fictional worlds of film and TV, artificial intelligence has been depicted as so advanced that it is indistinguishable from humans. But what if we’re actually getting closer to a world where AI is capable of thinking and feeling?

Tech company UneeQ is embarking on that journey with its “digital humans.” These avatars act as visual interfaces for customer service chatbots, virtual assistants, and other applications. UneeQ’s digital humans appear lifelike not only in terms of language and tone of voice, but also because of facial movements: raised eyebrows, a tilt of the head, a smile, even a wink. They transform a transaction into an interaction: creepy yet astonishing, human, but not quite.

What lies beneath UneeQ’s digital humans? Their 3D faces are modeled on actual human features. Speech recognition enables the avatar to understand what a person is saying, and natural language processing is used to craft a response. Before the avatar utters a word, specific emotions and facial expressions are encoded within the response.

UneeQ may be part of a larger trend towards humanizing computing. ObEN’s digital avatars serve as virtual identities for celebrities, influencers, gaming characters, and other entities in the media and entertainment industry. Meanwhile, Soul Machines is taking a more biological approach, with a “digital brain” that simulates aspects of the human brain to modulate the emotions “felt” and “expressed” by its “digital people.” Amelia is employing a similar methodology in building its “digital employees.” It emulates parts of the brain involved with memory to respond to queries and, with each interaction, learns to deliver more engaging and personalized experiences.

Shiwali Mohan, an AI systems scientist at the Palo Alto Research Center, is skeptical of these digital beings. “They’re humanlike in their looks and the way they sound, but that in itself is not being human,” she says. “Being human is also how you think, how you approach problems, and how you break them down; and that takes a lot of algorithmic design. Designing for human-level intelligence is a different endeavor than designing graphics that behave like humans. If you think about the problems we’re trying to design these avatars for, we might not need something that looks like a human—it may not even be the right solution path.”

And even if these avatars appear near-human, they still evoke an uncanny valley feeling. “If something looks like a human, we have high expectations of them, but they might behave differently in ways that humans just instinctively know how other humans react. These differences give rise to the uncanny valley feeling,” says Mohan.

Yet the demand is there, with Amelia seeing high adoption of its digital employees across the financial, health care, and retail sectors. “We find that banks and insurance companies, which are so risk-averse, are leading the adoption of such disruptive technologies because they understand that the risk of non-adoption is much greater than the risk of early adoption,” says Chetan Dube, Amelia’s CEO. “Unless they innovate their business models and make them much more efficient digitally, they might be left behind.” Dube adds that the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated adoption of digital employees in health care and retail as well.

Amelia, Soul Machines, and UneeQ are taking their digital beings a step further, enabling organizations to create avatars themselves using low-code or no-code platforms: Digital Employee Builder for Amelia, Creator for UneeQ, and Digital DNA Studio for Soul Machines. Unreal Engine, a game engine developed by Epic Games, is doing the same with MetaHuman Creator, a tool that allows anyone to create photorealistic digital humans. “The biggest motivation for Digital Employee Builder is to democratize AI,” Dube says.

Mohan is cautious about this approach. “AI has problems with bias creeping in from data sets and into the way it speaks. The AI community is still trying to figure out how to measure and counter that bias,” she says. “[Companies] have to have an AI expert on board that can recommend the right things to build for.”

Despite being wary of the technology, Mohan supports the purpose behind these virtual beings and is optimistic about where they’re headed. “We do need these tools that support humans in different kinds of things. I think the vision is the pro, and I’m behind that vision,” she says. “As we develop more sophisticated AI technology, we would then have to implement novel ways of interacting with that technology. Hopefully, all of that is designed to support humans in their goals.”

The Conversation (0)

The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

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