Bull Session

Digital / Human

July 13, 2018          

Episode Summary

On the podcast this week, we take a look at the strange new world of developing digital humans — convincing CGI rendering of people in virtual space, which may or may not be connected to AI. Pioneering this category of virtual person are brand influencers and supermodels on Instagram, like Lil Miquela, who conceivably could make money endorsing fashion products like clothing and make-up. In a B2B context, when wired up to an AI-driven chat bot, these virtual people could take the place of person-to-person customer service, as in the case of Ava, from Autodesk. What happens when we’re able to create convincing digital representations of people who can communicate and influence? Join us as we discuss.

Resources:
CGI “Influencers” Like Lil Miquela Are About to Flood Your Feed

Jon:
Welcome to episode 266 of The Digital Life, a show about our insights into the future of design and technology. I’m your host Jon Follett, and with me is founder and cohost, Dirk Knemeyer.

Dirk:
Greetings, listeners.

Jon:
For our podcast this week, we’re going to take a dive back into the realm of developing realistic digital human beings. Now-

Dirk:
Realistic digital human beings. Okay.

Jon:
Yeah, that’s where we’re headed today. And so, what do we mean by that? So, an ever-increasing ability of people to create CGI humans that look, you know, like they’re an actual picture of a person, right?

Dirk:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jon:
So, you know, everything from say, like, Pixar to … there was a game developer conference a few months ago where Epic Games showed of Siren, which was this virtual person who could be controlled by an actual person in real time. So, sort of this realistic CGI being that was moving in concert with a human being who was covered with sensors, presumably.

Dirk:
Yeah.

Jon:
So, this is a whole new art form that is coming out of both the gaming industry and then it’s also being used a way to create virtual avatars that can do things for companies, say, so like customer service, right? Put a face on customer service, but very realistic. Very interesting application of this realistic looking avatar was as a brand influencer on Instagram, so there was a couple of cases of more or less supermodel or influencers who were on Instagram and, you know, they look close to human beings, and they’re wearing-

Dirk:
Yes, very, very ish.

Jon:
Right. And you know, they’re wearing a particular fashionable makeup, or clothing or what have you. And so they have, you know, tens of thousands of followers, if not hundreds of thousands of followers, and there was one example of this. Little Miquela, I think is the-

Dirk:
Lil.

Jon:
Lil Miquela. Alright. And another example of this was a model called [Shoodoo 00:02:50]. I don’t know if I’m saying that correctly, but that’s-

Dirk:
I think she’d be okay with that pronunciation, Jon.

Jon:
So, this is interesting to me because at least in the media coverage that I’ve seen of these CGI human beings, um-

Dirk:
It’s interesting you called them human beings. That’s interesting, but let’s keep going.

Jon:
Well, CGI humans, or CGI people maybe.

Dirk:
Really? It’s still interesting. I’m not sure.

Jon:
It’s … they to me, looked very much like leftovers from the Sims, and I don’t know if I’m dating myself by talking about the Sims, but these-

Dirk:
You are a little, but that’s okay.

Jon:
But, you know, it started out with Sim City and went to, you know, the series of games where you could have this group of CGO people who you would provide a neighborhood for and, you know, jobs and a lifestyle, et cetera.

Dirk:
Yeah. Yeah.

Jon:
It reminded me of the Sims, and it really just did not … these pictures of these CGO influencers just did not … immediately did not resonate with me as being human beings. Dirk, when you saw these Instagram model influencers, what did you think?

Dirk:
I thought they were fascinating, but yeah, they didn’t evoke a real person whatsoever. I … you know, the story talking about this was focused on the fact that, you know, they have, or at least in the case of Lil Miquela, has over a million Instagram followers and is an influencer in fashion, in, you know, in style. Is a trendsetter. I think it’s super interesting, even though as I look at the character … I was surprised that the article contended that people were confused and sort of shocked when they learned that this was just a manufactured entity. I wasn’t shocked. When I first saw the story, sort of the headline with an image, looking at the image, it was clear to me that it was not a real person. So, on the execution side, I’m less than impressed in a certain way, although the results speak for themselves.
On the conceptual side, I think it’s fascinating. I think it’s super interesting and is where we’re headed in some sort of macro way. It gets into some things around identify that we don’t talk a lot on about this show, but I think are really moving from the standpoint of, you know, where our culture has moved and changed in the recent years and decades. I mean, as we’ve become increasingly virtual in how we interact with people, really ever since the smart phone revolution, we spend a lot of time communicating with people in real time digitally, never seeing their face, never hearing their voice a lot of times.
You know, this sort of direction is sort of inevitable for these avatars to come out. But there’s a lot of benefits to it as well. You know, I have found in myself, that a lot of my biases in a physical world go away in a digital world. When I’m dealing with words as opposed to words in the context of a person, I’m more open minded. I’m more accepting. I’m more empathetic, categorically, whereas with someone in the physical world, that’s not automatically true. Even though my instincts, my … what I’ve learned, how I like to think of myself as a person, would have me treating everyone that way, some people are treated more that way and some people are treated less that way, due to my biases. And so the abstraction that digital gives us allows us … or let me even personalize it as opposed to universalize it, allows me to interact with people in my best way consistently as opposed to in ways that are influenced by my bias of taking the world in. And so I consider that just an absolute good.
I also really appreciate the fact that digitally, I can remove myself from myself. I don’t have to be a big, hulking guy. I can express myself in ways that are inconsistent with the assumptions and biases other people would have when they look at me, and for me, that’s really freeing. As someone who has very much not identified with maleness, with testosterone, with sort of like a power and control. Those aren’t my thing, but if you look at me as a big, white guy, you might think those are my thing. But that’s not how I want to relate to people, and I feel more freed by dealing with people in a virtual way, in a way that is removed from my real physical identity because of that layer of abstraction.
So, I think there’s a lot of interesting things happening in identity and in virtualization in general, and I think it’s fascinating to see it manifesting even in these very poor CGI implementations in brand building, in, you know, people taking the fashion choices of these avatars, which are really of course the fashion choices of some operator that shares very little physically in common with those avatars, and are making sort of life-style purchase decision off of it. I think it’s really a trend to watch.

Jon:
Yeah, I think, you know our … if you’re familiar with the band Gorillaz, right? They have, you know, avatars for all of the members of the band, right, which are in this case, not CGI humans but they’re cartoons instead. So there’s certainly a place for that, not just solely in fashion, but I mean, that’s a perfect example of, you know, avatars, you know, being used in music, you know, as a representation. You know, telling the story better, or at least the sort of goofy, fun branded story that Gorillaz wants you to absorb and associate with their music.
You know, I could see … I mean, in some way, you know, producers do that anyway when they select, you know … if you’re a songwriter and producer, you might be doing songs for a number of pop stars, right, but you’re sort of behind the scenes, you know. This is sort of … could represent another way of having that front for your music because you are not, you know … maybe you don’t fit the demographic that likes that music. Maybe you’re a, you know, 50-year-old guy writing pop music, and you know, it’d be much better to have a, you know, younger singer who’s attractive to people, I don’t know.
So there are lots of questions about how we construct and put forth identity in digital. Another complicating factor, or sort of interesting emerging technology that intersects with this is Artificial Intelligence, right, because that lays the groundwork for sort of the voice user interface, which is sort of the other piece of this puzzle here. So, if you look at what Autodesk is doing with their digital assistant, Ava, which was sort of originally run as a chat bot by the IBM Watson sort of back end there, and is now have this front end presented by a company called Soul Machines, which does some CGI work and other work on top of it, you know-

Dirk:
Boy, that name is icky. Soul Machines.

Jon:
Yeah. Soul Machines. So, they’re from New Zealand and they’re presenting sort of the front-facing CGI virtual assistant for the Ava chat bot. And I’ve seen some representations of it, and, you know, some of the expressions are human-like and interesting, but, you know, it also reminds me of Lil Miquela or Shoodoo or … I guess Siren was the other one we talked about, where it’s not quite there yet. And it does make you start to wonder about what elements are going to be automated away and … but at the same time presented with a human face.
So if you think about all of these bots now having some kind of CGI form to them, you know, does Alexa start appearing in my mirror in the morning, you know, as I’m brushing my teeth? Does Siri have her, you know, instantiation on the phone? You know, intersecting these technologies … for me, it’s going to get a little bit weird. I mean, the disembodied voice I can kind of manage, but it’s almost … these forms, since they’re not real humans to me, they fall into that uncanny valley very much and it gives me the creeps. I think Siri as a CGI-represented avatar and Alexa … like, that would actually push me away from using those, I think.
Dirk, how do you envision this intersection of AI and CGI humans coming together, or not? Just on a personal level?

Dirk:
Sure. I mean, on a personal level … well, let me step back first. I mean, you said it’s not there yet, which I also said and yet, there’s 1.3 million Instagram followers. I think it is there yet, and the degree to which we are saying it’s not, being turned off by the fact that the CGI representation isn’t sort of tricking us might be a reflection of our age. It might be that younger people are more accepting of this sort of jankiness, of where that tech is now. So, there’s a whole other thread there.
But, for me, and the, you know, the Alexa on my mirror as opposed to a voice in the air … if the tech is right, that would be great. I mean, if it really behaves seamlessly like a person, if it looked like a real person, if there weren’t obvious tics in the system, I would like that. Like in … you know, all of … I think philosophically all of us in our lives, we have all kinds of needs. We have all kinds of desires and there’s a lot to us, and many of us are not being fulfilled by the lives we live in the physical world. We have lacks of how we’re connecting with people hither and yon, and if those lacks could be filled by, you know, AI-powered CGI representations that were convincingly human, certainly for me that would be a huge boon. And based on the response to Lil Miquela, I think at least for younger generations, it would be a huge boon as well.
So, I think the technology is likely to go that way, with the caveat that you do need a screen, right? So, if you’re in the bathroom, yeah, the mirror is an obvious technology … boy, I just called the mirror technology. I guess it is, but that’s a little weird. The mirror is an obvious technology to upgrade to accommodate such a thing, you know, your computer screen.
But as you’re walking through halls in your house, as you’re in other rooms that aren’t … don’t have a screen at the right size and the right proximity to your eyes, if it then becomes a disembodied voice, what is that experience like, where my Alexa is on … my custom Alexa is on the mirror in the bathroom and it feels very human to human in a sort of surreal way, but then I’m walking down a hallway and it becomes just this voice in the environment. I don’t know. You know, for me, again as an older … we’re not really older people, right? God, Lord, John, we don’t have the walkers out yet. But as someone who is a Gen X-er as opposed to a Millennial, there would be some dissonance there. But I think maybe for the younger folks, that won’t be as much of an issue.
For me, that’s the barrier in any event. If, like, there was always this persistent person visualized, if I wanted to engage with it, that would definitely be preferable for me. I just don’t know how that would hold up in sort of the entire system of the experience.

Jon:
Yeah, I think, you know, sort of delving into these layers a little bit more, I’m not 100% certain that I need body language or an emotional layer to systems interactions for me, so I don’t need to read the body language of a voice assistant and I don’t need to, you know, sort of assign any of those additional levels meaning to communicating with a system. I realize that those are very important when communicating with a person, and I realize there’s tons of information there, in fact that’s part of … as designers, you should be able to read that information and utilize it in your work, and I think that’s extremely valuable. But on the computer side, I don’t know that those additional layers are necessary for me, and I think that would creep me the heck out. In fact, just watching some of the … or just looking at some of the expressions on the CGO characters or looking at the renderings that I’ve seen of Ava, like, these sort of halfway there expressions, where they’re slightly off are just … it’s got to be the uncanny valley. I mean, I think that’s what my repulsed reaction is, because it’s just … it’s not there, and I don’t know why the thing is making that weird face.

Dirk:
Yeah, I mean, I’m having the same problem with the state of tech now, but I’m thinking ahead. I think we were thinking ahead to the future and assuming that that uncanny valley isn’t present anymore. I mean, Jon, for me, I think a lot of it how you’re framing it. I mean, you’re using the word system, computer, assistant. That’s very clinical and also very master-slave in a certain way. Not that you’re looking for a slave, I’m not implying that. But I’m not … for me, I’m looking for someone or something else in my life, right? I’m not looking at it as an assistant. I’m imagining it more as a person, right? You know, good morning, Dirk. How are you today? I didn’t sleep very well, I’m a little tired. Oh, honey, I’m really sorry to hear that. You have a busy day today as well.
Like, I’m wanting something that is making me feel like a human who is supported and cared about, not that’s just giving me a laundry list of the things I need to do on that day. For me, that’s where the real magic and potential and power lies. I’m afraid it’s not close. I’m afraid it’s not a few years away, for the system both from the CGI looking correct and the intelligence of the AI to seamlessly take me through that experience, you know. We may not even be in the 2020s with that, so it’s a little bit of a pipe dream, but for me that’s where it becomes magical technology, and technology that can really improve my life because it is bringing someone else into my life who’s whole job and role, in a certain way, is to have a relationship with me that makes my life better and that is pretty cool.

Jon:
Alright, well, this is a really set of emerging technologies, you know, interesting in a way that, somewhat unexpected for me anyway. I think it’s going to be really fascinating to watch this going forward just as, you know, in the same way we were discussing a couple months ago about, you know, the advances for Siren and the game developer conference and then, you know, the sort of recent hubbub around the CGI influencers. I think there’s a lot more happening in this area than I initially expected and it’s developing quickly and sort of coalescing with AI and natural language recognition and chat bots and things like that. So it’s very much falls into that super technology realm where, you know, there’s an interesting pot boiling here and we’ll have to see what bubbles up in the very near future.
Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to the show, you can follow along with the things that we’re mentioning here in real time. Just head out to thedigitalife.com. That’s just one L in thedigitalife, and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everyone, so it’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while your listening or afterward, if you’re trying to remember something that you liked.
You can find The Digital Life on iTunes, SoundCloud, Stitcher, Player FM, and Google Play. If you’d like to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter @jonfollett. That’s J-O-N-F-O-L-L-E-T-T. Of course the whole show is brought to you by GoInvo, a studio designing the future of health care and emerging technologies, which you can check out at goinvo.com. That’s G-O-I-N-V-O dot com. Dirk?

Dirk:
You can follow me on Twitter @dknemeyer. That’s @ D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R. Thanks so much for listening.

Jon:
So that’s it for Episode 266 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett and we’ll see you next time.

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