At a recent MIT Media Labs event Sarah Guisto from Aww Inc took the audience through a fast-paced tour of virtual characters that her studio in Tokyo has successfully built and deployed. Perhaps the most famous is Imma, who is now three years old and most well-known for performing at the Tokyo Paralympics closing ceremony. Aww is the leading Asian company in virtual humans combining not just advanced technology but an empathetic approach to design, crafting these beings in a way that not just renders them technical, but also credible and emotional.
As Asia’s number one influential virtual human with over 1 million followers on Instagram and Tik Tok, Imma has ‘worked with’ brands such as Porsche, Dior, and Nike, regularly appearing on the covers of magazines, and one can see the appeal for brands. Many readers will already be familiar with Lil Miquela who now enjoys over 3 million followers on Instagram. And Yumi, created by Soul Machines, for the skincare brand SKII. Yumi's main purpose is to advise twenty-something Japanese SK-II fans on how to take better care of their skin. These characters are flexible, adaptable, and global. They don’t demand repeat fees in media and they probably turn up on the dot and are never late for a shoot.
But the foremost reason they have been employed is because they can become whoever you want them to be. Production companies like Aww can program them with whatever characteristics and expressions will appeal most to a certain target audience or community to increase the chance of engagement. It was telling that Sarah mentioned they were making ‘beautiful people’. What might be the longer-term implications of that, on society, and on our expectations of women in general?
Aww did reveal that they are about to release a real-time 3D computer-generated character in a pre-rendered state so they can create new expressions and faces not based on any single face but for programming detailed facial movements, eye movements, mouth movements, hair simulation, and voice, as well as simultaneous clothing simulations. These are all the small details that ‘trick the human eye’. The idea is that this real-time technology with precise production details will help characters communicate with fans more directly.
As Jeanne Lim, CEO of Being AI suggested, there are many existing technologies (text chatbots, voice assistant services, gaming characters, digital humans, and personal avatars) that are about to converge into a realm of AI-powered virtual humans. Lim wants to build trust between humans and these virtual beings. What are the required elements to achieve that? According to Lim, it’s a combination of an engaging and consistent personality, a sense of morality and empathy to avoid causing harm, a way to perceive a user’s emotions (by detecting when people are sad or happy through facial expressions as well as through conversation), each being having a specific skill set, and an interoperable approach for real-time interactivity so these beings are not trapped in an app only to be used on certain platforms or in certain spaces.
NGOs and nations are keen to get in on the act. Una, an AI being that was co-created with the United Nations is employed to increase awareness of climate change, and Kasper, a male virtual human being who supports people with their mental health.
As we've known for a while the global population is heading towards a decline. In many places around the world, total fertility rates (the expected number of children born per woman) are now below the replacement level. There are lots of important consequences to this, which I will return to in a forthcoming newsletter, but for now it is enough to ask: will we have enough young people for the jobs?
Or, will companies start to consider hiring virtual humans for real jobs? The human population might be declining but we might well see an increase in the virtual population before this decade is out.
In other Digital Identity news...
I recorded a podcast with Nathalie Nahai's for her Hive Podcast covering technology and the natural world, which will be out next week
And I tried to explain what I thought Jack Dorsey means by Web5. Turns out to be my most-read piece ever, for Forbes. Check it out.