Editor’s note: You are welcome to view a one-hour webinar, “Meet your new AI Colleague – Working with Digital Humans,” which was presented by Kelley Professor Alan Dennis and his co-authors on Feb. 23.
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – With rapid progress in computer graphics and advancements in artificial intelligence, human faces are now being put on chat bots and other computer-based interfaces with customers, employees, and others.
Coined “digital humans,” they mimic people as they are used as sales assistants, corporate trainers and even social media influencers. For example, Lil Miquela, an online influencer with nearly 3 million Instagram followers is virtual and not a real person.
Soul Machines, an autonomous animation software company, has deployed about 50 digital humans in organizations around the world.
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 their Feb. 14 Harvard Business Review article, “AI with a Human Face: The case for – and against – digital employees,” they explain how different types of digital humans interact with us in various ways and when it is most appropriate.
“Firms that embrace this new technology will lower costs, increase revenues and gain a sustainable first-mover advantage that slower adapters may find hard to overcome as customers become attached to their digital counterparts,” Dennis and his co-authors wrote. “Within a decade, we believe, managers at most companies are likely to have a digital human as an assistant or an employee.”
Other authors are Mike Seymour, co-director of Motus Lab at the University of Sydney; Dan Lovallo and Kai Riemer, professors at the University of Sydney; and Lingyao “Ivy” Yuan, an assistant professor at Iowa State University.
Although we know the digital human isn’t “real,” our minds are “attuned to and react emotionally to facial signals,” they wrote. “We know that what we see on the screen is an artificial construct, but we still connect instinctively to it, and we do not have to turn ourselves into computer experts to interpret the facial signals and make the exchange work properly.”
Through their experience working with and consulting on projects for companies that create digital humans – including Pinscreen, Epic Games and Soul Machines – Dennis and his colleagues have researched design and appearance of digital humans, when they should be deployed and what contexts are best.
“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 said. “Someone searching for clothes online might welcome seeing the outfit on someone who looks like them to get a feel for how the items go together and whether the look reflects who they are. In such cases, a digital human will engage the customer more, help complete the sale, and reduce the likelihood of product returns.”
They identify four types of digital humans.
Virtual agents, whose role is to complete specific, one-time tasks like those performed by chat bots, are increasingly being used as digital instructors in videos and presentations. Dennis and his co-authors cite digital humans being used at international airports to provide instructions to travelers.
Virtual assistants, who help users in completing specific tasks, often develop personal relationships with users, which is why they are often used as rehabilitation therapists, personal assistants, and coaches.
Virtual influencers “supply their human followers with experiences,” but they are not “personalized.” In other words, just as people may follow the Kardashians and see pictures of their lavish experiences, “any relationship a person might feel with them (virtual influencers) stems from that person’s projection and not from any individual customization.” Virtual influencers have been successfully employed by the fashion industry.
The researchers see great promise in the use of virtual companions in elder care and early child education.
“Virtual companions 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,” they wrote. “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.”