Samsung Hopes ‘Artificial Humans’ Will Become Our Friends


Neon, a screen-based artificial human avatar unveiledOpens a new window at the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show this week, has attracted massive media attention.

Created by STAR Labs, the avatars are lifelike images displayed on computer screens and can show emotions such as surprise, anger and skepticism. They also can answer simple questions.

Some of the grand claimsOpens a new window made by the figures’ creators –”a new kind of life” and “friends, collaborators, companions” – seem far-fetched and have been called into question. Still, there’s little doubt that human-like screen robots are making technological advances and are beginning to infiltrate the business world.

Next-gen Siri and Alexa

Corporations are eager to use avatars on their websites to take the place of human customer service agents. Voice-enabled digital assistants such as Siri and Alexa have become an accepted part of everyday technology. The next step is to produce human-like robots that can function as customer care assistants, financial advisers and influencers.

STAR (Samsung Technology and Advanced Research) Labs showed off several Neon figures at its booth at the huge Las Vegas electronics show. The Neons can answer questions and make comments, STAR’s reps claim, adding that the avatars are “indistinguishable” from us and can learn, gain new skills and evolve.

The Neons could eventually become TV news readers, corporate press officers, companions or friends. “Each Neon,” the company says, “has his or her own unique personality and can show new expressions, movements and dialogues.”

Think on their feet?

DemonstrationsOpens a new window of the figures back up the claims that they’re extremely lifelike, though their ability to conduct conversations does not seem to exceed long-established digital assistants such as Siri, Alexa or even Samsung’s own Bixby.

But the Neons have sophisticated facial expressions and the demos show them responding to commands to smile, look angry or become skeptical.

Some commentators have criticizedOpens a new window the launch of Neon as over-hyped. Similar digital avatars already exist. That said, Neon’s so-called “artificial humans” seem significantly more lifelike than two competitors, Yumi and Amelia.

Procter & Gamble’s luxury skin care brand SK-II launched YumiOpens a new window last summer. It was created by the New Zealand-based company Soul Machines.

Yumi looks lifelike and helps answer customers’ questions about skincare and the company’s products. However, it’s unclear if SK-II is still using Yumi, which seems to have disappeared from its website.

Neons look more lifelike than Yumi. But STAR Labs has failed to show Neons conducting natural, in-depth conversations.

Another company, IPSoft, which uses artificial intelligence technology to manage IT for large corporations, has created AmeliaOpens a new window , a lifelike screen bot.

Amelia is being widely used as a customer service assistant for IT departments. The avatar displays human emotions and can also carry out robotic tasks such as finding passwords and answering complex queries.

A trial version of Neon will be launched later this year. Once up and running, it will be possible to judge just how it compares with its rivals.

Friends, collaborators, companions

Star Labs is run by computer scientist and inventor Pranav Mistry, who previously worked for Samsung and developed Sixth Sense, a gesture-based wearable computer system. He also worked on other inventions such as Blinkbot, a gaze and blink-controlled robot.

“Neons will be our friends, collaborators and companions, continually learning, evolving and forming memories from their interactions,” he said.

The avatars are based on a technology platform called Core R3, which stands for Reality, Real Time and Responsiveness. The platform uses artificial intelligence based on neural networks which are “extensively trained with how humans look, behave and respond.”

Whether the hype behind Neon is justified, screen avatars is the next big project in the development of customer bots. Enterprises will be looking for ways of integrating them into the customer service and promotional interfaces.

It’s worth noting not all innovations promoted by big tech have been successful. Virtual reality – much hyped over recent years – is already being pronounced “deadOpens a new window ” by some observers. VR’s drawback is that is requires users to wear an uncomfortable visor to experience it.

Screen-based avatars seem quite easy and seamless by comparison. It would be no surprise in coming years that they become an accepted component of corporate marketing and communications.