How virtual humans could transform the brand experience

The rise of artificial intelligence is bringing with it the advent of a new age of robotic humans. We look at their impact on service and engagement

For years, marketers have talked about brands as having personalities. Now they have the tools to bring those brands to life – virtually at least.

Rapid developments in artificial intelligence (AI) are being combined with Academy Award-winning animation skills to create virtual humans that are the closest yet to flesh and blood. And for brands, that offers the opportunity to put a very human-looking face on a corporate body.

One of the latest iterations of these virtual humans comes from Auckland-based company, Soul Machines, whose co-founder and CEO, Mark Sagar’s ground-breaking work in computer-generated faces on films, King Kong and Avatar, was recognised with consecutive Oscars. Now Soul Machines is applying its skills to the commercial world through the creation of virtual humans as the new face of brands.

According to Soul Machines’ chief business officer, Greg Cross, virtual humans give consumer-facing organisations an opportunity to completely change the economics of highly-personalised service.

“When you interact with one of our virtual humans as a virtual concierge or a virtual customer service agent, it is going to be a highly personalised experience,” Cross says.

“These virtual employees are going to remember you every time you interact with them. They will have built up a profile of your personality, of what products and services you love, and which ones you don’t. They will have knowledge of problems you have had and whether they have been resolved to your satisfaction.

“What that means is we now have the ability to deliver highly personalised service on a very, very large scale using these virtual employees.”

The technology is being trialled at numerous organisations in banking, technology, healthcare, education, and transport. It has also been used to create Sophie, a pilot customer interaction project for Air New Zealand.

“The early customers we are working with really see their first virtual employee as an extension of their brand,” Cross says. “They go through a process of designing their first virtual employee in the same way they would select a celebrity to represent their brand in a television advertisement.”

Read more: 8 brands using voice activation to boost brand engagement

While the quality of the animations developed by Soul Machines is incredibly lifelike, it is the AI model behind its virtual humans that brings them to life. Cross says this is based around mimicking human thought process and brain models.

“Mark [Sagar] asked ‘what if I built biologically-inspired models of different parts of the human brain, and wired all this together into a virtual nervous system?’,” Cross says. “Could we create emotionally responsive, human-like, engaging characters? And that is what we have done.

“As best we know we are the only company in the world that can bring these digital characters to life using a virtual nervous system and neural networks that continuously learn.”

Getting people to believe the robot

For the technology to truly take off though, it will need to do something that previous attempts have so far failed at. That is, cross the so-called ‘uncanny valley’ - a term coined by roboticist, Masahiro Moti, in reference to ‘the phenomenon whereby a computer-generated figure or humanoid robot bearing a near-identical resemblance to a human being arouses a sense of unease or revulsion in the person viewing it’.

It is a phenomenon artificial intelligence expert and research fellow at the Centre for Collective Intelligence at MIT, Aleksandra Przegalinska, has studied in detail.

 “One has to be very careful while implementing different kinds of virtual assistants and physical objects that use natural language and are AI-based because some of them may be rejected for very trivial reasons,” Przegalinska says. “We are generally less tolerant to machines when they display ignorance in any field than we are to humans.”

Przegalinska says it is possible the uncanny valley effect will vanish at some future time, as the technological accuracy of virtual assistants will be so high people won’t recognise the difference between avatars and humans.

Cross is already confident Soul Machines has reached that point.

“The brain models we build are incredibly sophisticated,” he says. “These virtual humans have virtual neural transmitters like dopamine, serotonin, and cortisol. That’s what we believe gives us the best platform in the world to go beyond the uncanny valley and engage humans in this incredibly human-like way.

“Every time there is an interaction between one of our virtual humans and a real person, the neural networks train themselves better. They become more emotionally aware and more emotionally responsive.”

On the edge of the brand-to-human interface

While Soul Machines’ virtual humans are yet to be broadly intermingled with the public, there has been rapid growth in the use of other forms of AI as an organisation-to-human interface.

Sydney-based technology consultancy, Carrington Associates, for instance has been working with IBM’s Watson cognitive computing technology to create AI-powered chat bots. Managing director, Sachin Khisti, says that while chatbots are often deployed to answer simple and transactional queries, implementing AI means they can take on tasks that are actually more complex than any human could manage.

“There are some products that are very complicated, such an in insurance or wealth management, where a consultant cannot answer everything,” Khisti says.

One of the most surprising aspects of Carrington Associates work is the cost: Khisti says it is possible to create a proof-of-concept cognitive project for as little as $10,000.

Technology services business, Datacom, has also been creating virtual assistants. ‘Alex’, an intelligent assistant, was implemented at IP Australia and recognised with an award at the 4th Annual Intelligent Assistant Awards in San Francisco in September.

Datacom director, Stacey Tomasoni, says it is vital virtual assistants represent the tone and the culture of the organisation.

“The approach we take is that a virtual assistant is part of a wider team,” she says. “Just like you would recruit the right employee, train them, and invest in them, and make sure they collaborate with others – that is the approach we try to take.”

That means investigating in depth what kind of personality the customers would they relate to. Tomasoni says the results are often surprising.

“We’re seeing cute little things like customers saying ‘thanks, I really appreciate it’, and the fact they are having these thoughts for me is a good thing,” she says.

As a result, however, Datacom is having to reskill itself to take into account a range of requirements not obvious when it set out to first create virtual assistants.

“We are getting into the world of conversational commerce and interaction design, and roles that didn’t exist six months ago,” Tomasoni says. “In a way it is almost like the contact centre has finally got a seat at the table, and all of a sudden everyone wants to talk about the customer. And who knows best about the customer? It’s those on the front line.” 

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