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Digital humans and AI chatbots

Feb. 17, 2023.
3 min. read 5 Interactions

New kinds of 'digital human' chatbots are helping communicate more effectively

About the writer

Amara Angelica

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Senior Editor Amara Angelica, an electrical engineer and inventor, was previously Editor of Kurzweil AI, working with Ray Kurzweil on The Singularity Is Near and other works.

In our current AI chat frenzy, we may have overlooked another kind of chatbot that has been quietly emerging: “digital humans.”

These are images on phones, computers and other screens that mimic people. They function in roles like sales assistants, corporate trainers, and social-media influencers, like “Lil Miquela,” an online influencer with nearly 3 million Instagram followers who books herself as a “19-year-old Robot living in LA.“

AI with a human face

Thanks to rapid progress in computer graphics and AI, human faces are now being added to chatbots and other computer-based interfaces for customers, employees, and others.

Alan Dennis, professor of information systems and the John T. Chambers Chair of Internet Systems at the Indiana University Kelley School of Business, has been observing this emerging trend for seven years with colleagues at the University of Sydney and Iowa State University.

In a Feb. 14 Harvard Business Review article, “AI with a Human Face: The case for — and against — digital employees,” Dennis and associates explain how different types of digital humans interact with us in various ways, and when they are most appropriate.

“Digital humans can be a much better choice when it comes to communicating complex instructions or describing features of a product. This is why YouTube instruction videos — rather than pages of text — are so successful,” they note.

Types of digital humans

The researchers identify four types of digital humans:

Virtual agents, whose role is to complete specific, one-time tasks, such as providing instructions to travelers at international airports.

Virtual influencers, who “supply their human followers with experiences” but are not “personalized,” like those employed by the fashion industry.

Virtual assistants, who help users in completing specific tasks, often developing personal relationships with users, which enables them to function as rehabilitation therapists, personal assistants, and coaches, for example.

Virtual companions, who enable older people to stay in their homes longer, which is known to be better for their physical and mental health. They are also much cheaper than assisted living or nursing homes. “Similar opportunities exist in education. Children are more engaged when they watch other children. Thus, a child-aged digital human could, at times, be a more effective teacher than a human adult teacher.”

Reality check

To further explore these ideas, I spoke with professor Dennis. One question: “How real could or should  these images be?”

Dennis said he was concerned about the “uncanny valley” effect and pointed to Soul Machines, an autonomous animation software company that has deployed about 50 digital humans in organizations around the world.

“In a study, about a third of our students found their productions to be in the uncanny valley,” he said. “Some also said they don’t want to talk, they want to type, while others don’t like listening, because people talk so slow … we turn the speed up on videos to 1.5 or 2.”

Smart chatbot faces … and some issues

“Anywhere there’s a chatbot, we could put a digital face on it, and drop it onto your phone, and suddenly, we have an AI agent that looks and sounds like a real human,” Dennis said.

Other possible uses of digital faces he mentioned include customer support and apps like Siri, Alexa and Google Voice. “And we could drop a face into a Zoom chat, where It becomes “another” team member [assuming we can fix ‘Zoom face‘].”

Adding ChatGPT or other language models

“Now imagine combining that with ChatGPT, and it could function as an entry-level employee. People who collaborate with AI will go far. In the future, we’ll be talking about partnering with AI (not just using it), because technology is becoming more and more like a human,” said Dennis.

“Wherever you use a chatbot, we will be able to see a human face, and hopefully, you’ll be able to customize it so you get the look and feel that you want,” said Dennis.

However, “when a digital human can look like any person, there will be avatars to look like famous people, and of course, imposter issues,” he notes.

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2 Comments

2 thoughts on “Digital humans and AI chatbots

  1. Impersonation will definitely occur. However, identity stacks and integrations will be developed to smoothly eliminate the need for guessing or doubting the identity of the person one is watching, listening to, or talking to.
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  2. As described in the article as well, there are enormous emotional and cognitive benefits of having human-like avatars and robots around. They don't need to suffer from the same deficits in social situations as humans do, but they can still behave similarly for educational reasons. Let’s assume that the AI in question is, for all practical purposes, an unconscious agent. If interactions with a robot can also teach good behavior and respect for others, that's great. It becomes problematic when a person starts sacrificing themselves or other humans for the benefit of the robot, treating it as if it were a human being in this sense as well. This can manifest in seemingly small actions like skipping a meeting with human friends to avoid hurting the AI's emotions, and can escalate to the point of risking one's life to save the robot. That's why it's important to have intuitive and immediate information available about who one is interacting with and collectively learn to embrace these developments as a natural part of our lives. Personally, I am not too worried about the fact that AI agents are becoming outwardly human-like subjects per se, as long as the underlying systems of trust are built on solid foundations.
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