Digital AI Avatars of Ourselves
Today’s concept of an avatar comes from how societies and religions for centuries have portrayed the human representations of divine beings that over the course of history have walked among humans on earth.
In recent times, avatars have become much more pedestrian. In the world of computing and online gaming, they are visual representations and personifications of the user – as they are or as they’d like to be perceived.
But we’re moving quickly towards having avatars of ourselves that serve as trusted friends and personal substitutes. Even before that, though, we will be able to “live forever” through a figure representing ourselves that serves as an eternal repository of our thoughts and memories.
The evolution of personal avatars is primarily limited at this time by robotic technology and the ability to upload and store significant portions of the contents of our brains into an artificial intelligence receptor. But even now, simpler forms of our psyches can be combined with a humanoid robotic form that looks like us.
What are the future implications of this technology and these breakthroughs?
Online Avatars for Sales and Marketing
Stock photos are all around us these days. People routinely sell their photo image to be used in marketing materials for various organizations’ websites, brochures, or print ads. The next logical step is to have stock virtual people – enabled by real people who have sold their images and other personalized characteristics to create an avatar that can be programmed to communicate a personalized marketing pitch to the viewer.
Maybe it’s a prototypical 40-something avatar wearing a lab coat telling us they have an ideal solution for our persistent dandruff. Or an athlete pitching a soft drink or particular sports car. These avatars will be programmed to make incredibly personalized pitches – addressing the recipient by name or mentioning our past purchases for example. And companies will choose personalized avatars the recipient can relate to – by age, race, gender, and so on.
How could you say “no” when an NBA star seems to be talking directly with you? Maybe they’re even interacting with you and responding to your questions about last year’s championship game… before they steer the conversation back to the sales pitch.
To modify a lyric from Peter Yarrow, avatars live forever, not so the people who provide their visages and brain data inputs.
Currently, one of the most popular ways to document a personal memorial legacy to be shared with subsequent generations is through a lengthy video recording, often with a family member interviewing the person to help trigger the memories and details they want to pass along.
Avatars have that beat. Instead of watching a video that never changes, family members centuries later can have a conversation with the figure representing the long-deceased patriarch.
We saw a glimmer of this in a 60 Minutes story in 2020 about the work of the Shoah Foundation. The organization extensively video-interviews holocaust survivors about their experiences. Their answers are cataloged in such a way that they can be retrieved in response to questions from a later “interviewer.”
Imagine how much more expansive the scope of stored and shared knowledge would be if far more of the memories and mannerisms of the person were somehow downloaded to be shared later via the person’s avatar?
Programming Our Avatar
Until we figure out how to hardwire a brain to a computer and do a data download – with sufficient storage – we’ll need to rely on other strategies for data input to make the avatar “us.”
Researchers did this with author and spiritualist Dr. Deepak Chopra, downloading his books and speeches to the point where his avatar can hold a relatively thorough conversation with a human being.
I believe that in the future the rest of us will be able to do this by extensively video or tape recording our thoughts and memories over time. The AI technology would continually sort all of this out and catalog this input for ongoing avatar education. The avatar could be used in real-time as well as preserved for future interaction with our future great-great-great grandchildren.
Imagine the benefit that great-great-great grandchild will have when they learn about future history by interacting with the avatar of a world leader or an average citizen who lived in that era?
And to bring things closer to home in the here and now, the next time you’re double-booked for important Zoom meetings, consider how convenient it would be to have your avatar “double” fill in on one of them – bringing all your expertise and insights into the discussion. That might be possible … if for the past two years, you’ve continually recorded and uploaded all your business conversations as well as the reports and analyses you’ve been privy to.
The Inevitable Evolution
I believe we’re still on track for the future with avatars that I envisioned more than 10 years ago. As I said then, avatars will “emerge from the computer and appear as visual beings, walking around among us.” Avatar science will combine the best of robotics and information technology so that avatars will mimic their human source in real-time, not simply as a future legacy.
This is as exciting … and disconcerting as you can imagine.
Before they outlive us by eons, our avatar might be a friend and a companion that really “gets us.” While they’re at our side, they’ll continually learn about us from us. They’ll be a sounding board on personal and professional matters and will always be prepared to fill in for us in a variety of situations as needed.
And that’s where things can get a little disturbing. Will our avatar be the idealized us or just more of the same? Will the avatar of a criminal also be a criminal? Will there be armies of avatars? Will we compete with our avatar for the love and attention of others? Will they become too much like us – with weak moments and ulterior motives? Can we program our avatar for good?
I think we’ve seen those movies already.
Well, given the reality that AlphaZero taught itself how to master the games of chess, shogi (Japanese chess), and Go, do future AI powered avatars really need us? We, the humans, have developed enough knowledge and wisdom that machines can pick up from here to build their own and far more advanced knowledge, just ask former world chess champion Garry Kasparov. Get used to it.