It might seem like something out of a sci-fi novel, but it’s real. Advancements in artificial intelligence have led to a new development: fully automated “digital people.” These A.I.-powered virtual characters are capable of conducting natural conversations and can be programmed to possess unique personalities. Now, a crop of startups are betting that these characters could have utility beyond the metaverse, and could maybe even usher in a kind of “digital workforce,” programmed to handle a variety of non-physical tasks, such as selling products, providing customer support services, and teaching classes.
Imagine that you run a staffing company. Instead of requiring your clients to fill out forms describing the kind of employees they’re looking for, the candidates could simply talk to a virtual consultant, which could recommend new hires based on the conversations. You could go even further and add a charming personality to your virtual consultant, further enhancing the customer experience.
But how can you program a personality? One of the companies tackling this problem is InWorld, a group developing a character creation system primarily for use in gaming and the metaverse. The system allows users of any skill level to develop their own custom characters, and imbue them with a unique personality. InWorld CEO Ilya Gelfenbeyn says the company’s goal is to provide an accessible, easy-to-use “engine” that can turn generic avatars into digital people. InWorld’s character creator asks users questions about their motivations, hobbies, and dialogue style to get a sense of their personality. The creator even includes multiple sliding scales that can be adjusted to determine personality traits, such as how introverted versus extroverted the character is. After creating a character, users can chat with their creation via text.
In order to pair their newly-created A.I. with an avatar, users can either integrate their InWorld characters into free-to-use game development engines like Unity and Unreal, or to specific avatar creation services such as Ready Player Me, which announced in August 2022 that it had raised $56 million in its Series B fundraising round. Gelfenbeyn says InWorld’s tech has a variety of real world applications in addition to its utility in virtual worlds. For example, the CEO says that people could use InWorld to rehearse situations such as terminating an employee, or they could use a digital person to host corporate training exercises.
While Gelfenbeyn is focused on making it easy for anyone to fine-tune the personalities of their A.I. characters, Greg Cross, CEO and co-founder of digital people company Soul Machines, is determined to make digital avatars appear as real as possible. Soul Machine’s avatars are hyper-realistic, featuring visible pores and realistic mouth movements when they talk. Cross says the main benefit to using one of his hyper-realistic digital people rather than a chatbot or a voice assistant is the ability to create a face-to-face interaction. “If you were talking to a digital car salesperson for example, we could put three cars on screen and determine which one you’re looking at,” says Cross. “From there, the digital salesperson can tailor the conversation even further to your interests.”
In addition to using digital people as sales associates on e-commerce platforms or as customer service providers, Cross believes they could also form the basis for a whole new kind of product: officially licensed “digital twins” of celebrities. Cross says that the company has already made digital twins of NBA star Carmelo Anthony and Black Eyed Peas frontman will.i.am. If Cross is right, your company could one day hire these “digital twins” to serve as metaverse-based brand ambassadors for your company.
It’s not hard to see why some companies are bullish on the concept of highly interactable digital characters. InWorld was recently selected to be part of The Walt Disney Company’s 2022 accelerator program, but Gelfenbeyn is mum on whether his company has been tasked with recreating any of the brand’s iconic characters through their A.I. technology. “We’re the virtual characters company, and obviously Disney is the top character company around,” he says. “That’s all I can really say for now.”