Edward Saatchi, CEO of Fable Studio and manufacturer of Emmy winner virtual reality experiences, participated in a thoughtful conversation about “virtual beings” during our recent GamesBeat Summit 2020 Event.
I called the session “We are what we pretend to be”, from the moral of the story in one of my favorite novels, Mother Night, by Kurt Vonnegut. The novel is about an American spy from World War II who does his Nazi propaganda work too well. The moral is this: “We are what we pretend to be, so we have to be careful what we pretend to be.”
We have chosen to talk about the ethics and the promise of virtual humans, or artificial people created for video games and other experiences. Saatchi is the organizer of The summit of virtual beings. His event explores what it means to create virtual beings, and it has happened several times since mid-2019, and Saatchi is hosting a new event for June.
I did a rehearsal with Saatchi where we also talked about other things, and included quotes from this conversation in this story, as well as quotes from the embedded video released at our event.
From Saatchi’s point of view, AI is the next big art form. He’s fighting for his legitimacy now, just like virtual reality, video games, movies, comics and other things have had to fight for their legitimacy in the past.
“As game developers begin to explore natural language processing, computer vision and synthetic speech, we may be moving away from the slightly repetitive versions we recently received,” said Saatchi, who is trying to bring developers together games and AI technologists through its peak. “I think there are a lot of opportunities for developers exploring machine learning and artificial intelligence as if it were an art form.”
I started with a question about the usual dark vision associated with artificial people, going back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Today we have Black Mirror, the Terminator, Westworld, Detroit: Become Human, and more. I asked, “What are we so afraid of?”
We can see how fresh these fears are Neon, a Samsung-supported spin-off that presented its artificial humans as assistants for people at CES 2020, the big tech trade show that took place in January. You could hire these people, who could become a doctor, a chef, a flight attendant or some sort of replacement for a human.
This is part of what Saatchi has called the “fear of replacement story” that we have about artificial intelligence, or AI, that is replacing us. Westworld creates another “valid” fear of how AI might come to dominate humans, while another fear is loneliness, based on the concern that we may lead to have relationships with these beings by loneliness, he said.
“There are quite a few films and books, all of which can have negative consequences. It’s not what I believe, but it’s a pretty cool cannon, “said Saatchi.
In Detroit: Becoming human, there is massive unemployment, caused by the economic impact of robots that replace people. It’s a video game where we see the psychological impact, where people can inflict their darkest impulses on artificial beings that we tell ourselves are not real people, Saatchi said.
Then there is Lucy
“For us, there is a world where virtual beings could help us become better people,” said Saatchi. “Beings who are not selfish, who are not motivated by greed or envy, who are able to listen to us and validate and see us, could help us to be kinder and more gentle towards others real people. We all walk around with a lot of emotions, anxiety, things that we cannot express to ourselves or to others. “
But we could say these things to a virtual being.
Lucy is a pretty girl who believes there are wolves in the walls of her house. She is also a companion who looks you in the eye and speaks to you, remembering the choices you have made.
“Lucy is a child, our first being, from a story by Neil Gaiman,” said Saatchi. “You will soon be able to have video conversations, interact with her, learn from her. We have not yet seen a link between the life of a character that you can follow on Instagram or YouTube, but also be able to talk to this character, check with them, talk about what is going on with you , to create empathy. For us, this is the first time that you can interact with a character and create a set of memories and an emotional relationship with that character. “
Fable Studio builds this interactive side of Lucy, as well as with other characters. Maybe Lucy will appear in Zoom meetings in the future, helping to create the illusion that this character is real.
“She sees things in an optimistic and optimistic way,” said Saatchi. “In the conversations we have with Lucy, you get an idea of her as a real three-dimensional character who hopefully is connective. In this coronavirus period, for us, it is always important for us to wake up in the morning feeling that you are doing something useful. Building a virtual being with whom you can have conversations, have a video chat and communicate with, is even more important because the loneliness and the feeling of isolation – the things we think of metaphorically – are real.
In Lucy’s story, the fact that nobody listens to Lucy becomes a metaphor for what’s going on in the family. When the wolves come out of the walls, a crisis arises, and she must take matters into her own hands and bring her family to love themselves and fight the wolves.
“We want you to feel like you can communicate with Lucy like your imaginary friend,” said Saatchi. “We want you to feel that there is a universe that we have created and a logic explaining why you communicate with each other that is not transactional. It is not a virtual assistant relationship. Rather, it is a fun, story-driven relationship. “
Do digital humans have to be realistic?
Other visions of digital humans tend to push the limits of realism. Epic Games “creates very realistic demos of digital humans (as with his recent Unreal Engine 5 Demo for PlayStation 5) which will take advantage of the growing processing power of next generation PCs and consoles.
But, as noted, Lucy is a cartoon. Fable’s DNA includes veterans of Pixar (like co-founder Jessica Yaffa Shamash) and Dreamworks (Peter Billington), as well as experts in artificial intelligence. And both are necessary to advance virtual beings. Saatchi said it was easier to animate a character like Lucy. It’s always difficult to get characters that look super realistic, like Magic Leap Mica, to look real when they talk to you.
With Lucy, Fable goes beyond visuals to integrate a wide variety of aspects of AI, including machine learning, computer vision, synthetic speech, memory and computer animation. The idea is to have a story with Lucy leading the script, but also to create a real companion for you.
“We think memory is the thing that everyone should be working on or exploring in virtual beings, because it could reveal pretty deep things about how humans interact with each other and, possibly, about a virtual being”, Saatchi said.
The visuals have improved over the years, Saatchi said, but the behavior, or the brain of the artificial character, has not kept pace. Fable Studio spends less time on visuals, and it spends more time on “memory” and deepening the one-to-one relationship between the human (you) and the character. The character must know who you are, with a memory that goes back in time on the choices you have made.
The explosion of virtual beings
Since the first Saatchi Summit of virtual beings In July 2019, there was an explosion of these projects which take very different forms. Replika is a text messaging bot that has millions of users who think the bot is like a virtual best friend. It’s like a form of therapy with huge potential, Saatchi said.
“You have an ongoing digital conversation with your Replika,” said Saatchi.
Investor Cyan Bannister of Founders Fund has funded many of these projects. She saw a virtual concert hosted by a Japanese virtual character, Hatsune Miku, and was fascinated by how she could draw crowds.
One of his investments is Brud. On Instagram, you can follow Brud’s virtual life Lil miquela, an artificial influencer with 2.3 million followers on Instagram.
Beyond that, you can have a conversation with Deepak Chopra via a project being created by AI Foundation. The famous musician Grimes has created a digital avatar of itself. MuseNet is an AI that creates its own music, like a new composition by Mozart. Genies allows celebrities to enjoy their animated clones. Saatchi thinks there is huge potential for virtual beings in this space.
Virtual immortality resuscitates a deceased actor James Dean for a computer-generated imaging performance (CGI) in a new film.
“I think it’s fantastic,” said Saatchi. “Many people obviously think it’s terrible. Artistically, it’s so fascinating to think of a new performance. “
The Wave has virtual concerts where a real performer like John Legend leads an animated character captured by movement. Netflix will likely go further in interactivity, as it did with Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, with interactive experiences that are part of the game and live action. Facade is an example of a very conversational interactive story game.
At least good, deep counterfeits are used to make real people say things they never said.
“I think it’s an interesting time for us when we can see the start of a new movement,” said Saatchi. “Each of these is controversial.”
The intersection of virtual beings and games
Bannister said at the first virtual beings summit that she would like to have a conversation with her grandmother again, but her grandmother died. The startup HereAfter is trying to make this kind of conversation happen, through the death ditch. Saatchi noted that her own children will not have the chance to meet her mother because she died.
“It will change human psychology a lot,” said Saatchi, if you could have a conversation with someone who has died.
These interactions could produce powerful emotional moments associated with virtual beings, which could benefit games in particular, said Saatchi.
“We are almost on the verge of arriving at these things,” said Saatchi. “Interactive entertainment is becoming increasingly cinematic and story-driven. There are empathy games and narrative games. It’s going to be very exciting. When you see how much people connect or like interactive characters like Ellie in The last of us, you can see that looking towards the community of virtual beings will be very important. “
SpiritAI Help companies create non-player characters that appear to be real humans, so the hundreds of characters you meet in a game will make them more immersive, not fake. Voice graphics creates facial animation driven by AI.
Game designers have focused on “emerging gameplay,” where the events of a game are not scripted but flow from what the player does. These types of games are more immersive because the player feels like they are in a real world, where anything can happen. But Saatchi said much of it is based on environment-based gameplay, like how enemies can appear in a part of the world where you don’t expect it.
But “character-based gameplay” is rarer, and it’s something that the community of virtual beings is focusing on, he said.
“It would be cool to see an emerging gameplay where the characters change unpredictably,” said Saatchi.