By Seo Jeong Yun WIRED Korea
In November 2018, China’s state news agency Xinhua featured a digital version of an anchor, who looked and behaved almost like his human counterparts on television.
But his job as a news anchor was severely restricted. For instance, he was not capable of freely interacting with a co-anchor. Nor was he capable of handling breaking news, as a seasoned reporter or editor does. He apparently acknowledged his shortcomings when he said, “As long as I am provided with text, I can speak as a newscaster.”
More versatile is a NEON, a digital avatar developed by Samsung Technology & Advanced Research Labs, better known as STAR Labs. The digital avatar, which debuted at the just ended CES 2020, does not require the provision of any message, in the text or any other form, for the action he is about to take.
When asked to show a proper golfing stance, the NEON demonstrates it as he swings a golf club. Upon request, other NEONs show yoga practices or how to apply makeup.
At CES 2020 in Las Vegas last week, other NEONs understood human speech, engaged in dialogue and changed facial expressions as naturally as humans do. Their visual interaction and presentation were more effective and friendly than those of such artificial intelligence-empowered assistants as Siri or Alexa.
STAR Labs says a NEON is not an AI assistant, though it is empowered by artificial intelligence. Nor is it an interface to the Internet or a music player, STAR Labs says in its NEON homepage.
It defines NEON as a “computationally created virtual being that looks and behaves like a real human, with the ability to show emotions and intelligence.”
Computer scientist Pranav Mistry, president and CEO of STAR Labs, says NEONs never smile the same smile, adding that they instantly make a facial expression, take action and make a remark based on artificial intelligence-powered computation function embedded in each of them.
The NEONs came as more than 10 different characters ranging from an African-American male to an Asian female and from an airline stewardess to a news anchor. One smiled while pulling a mobile phone out of the pocket, another danced while listening to music and a third practiced golf. All of them looked and behaved, just as humans do on TV.
The NEON project was born out of a question of whetyher it was possible for people to believe that what was made digitally was real, Mistry says. NEONs, he says, are now capable of making millions of facial expressions, learning by themselves, making mistakes and speaking a wide range of languages.
NEON functions on STAR Labs’ proprietary software CORE R3, with the Rs representing Reality, Realtime (as spelled by STAR Labs) and Responsive. STAR Labs maintains the technology for NEON is a technology of tomorrow “inspired by the rhythmic complexities of nature and extensively trained with how humans look, behave and interact.”
The technology, it says, is introducing a “lifelike reality that is beyond our normal perception to distinguish,” provides real-time performance with latency of less than a few microseconds and responsiveness that enables interactions with smiles and chit chat. Moreover, it says it maintains privacy, ensuring the integrity of date with its state-of-the-art protocols.
Mistry says in a press release, “NEON is like a new kind of life. There are millions of species on our planet and we hope to add one more.”
NEONs are created based on video captures. But they set themselves apart from deepfakes, as their faces, though they are based on actual human faces, are newly created. Their changing video images are made in real time in response to human speech. When told to smile, for instance, a NEON understands the command and complies with it instantly.
But its detractors complain that, despite all the explanations, there is no understanding about the underlying technology. One news comment says STAR Labs “relies solely on jargon and hype.”
Early commercialization appears to be out of the question. STAR Labs admits it is not satisfied with the technology that was used for NEON development when it says the current NEON is a beta version.
The detractors will have to wait until Spectra, a new technology under development for AI-assisted learning, expression and memory functions, is unveiled at the end of this year. Star Labs is planning to hold a NEON World event when it makes the technology public.
It expects NEON avatars will then be used by subscribers and licensees as a service representative, a financial advisor, a healthcare provider or a concierge, as well as personal assistants. Over time, it expects them to be used as news anchors, spokespeople or movie actors.
Developer Angela, who withheld her family name at CES 2020, says she would like to see NEON growing into an artificial person capable of interacting with real persons instead of being used to answer simple questions from them.
The above is a translation of Seo Jeong Yun’s Korean-language article by Choi Nam-hyun, deputy editor in chief at WIRED Korea.