World welcomes digital humans, including virtual influencers

New research has detailed the four types of “digital humans” we can expect to interact with soon: virtual agents, assistants, influencers and companions

Humans will interact with at least four types of digital people, including Kardashian-style celebrities custom-built to influence consumers and companions for elderly patients receiving care in the community, new research claims.

These computer-generated digital people mimic human behaviour and are used as sales assistants, corporate trainers, and social media influencers. For instance, Lil Miquela, an Instagram influencer with almost three million followers, is entirely virtual.

Soul Machines, a prominent animation software company, has deployed around 50 digital humans in various organisations worldwide. This technology transforms how consumers interact with chatbots and other computer-based interfaces, making them more relatable and human-like.

Alan Dennis, the John T. Chambers Chair of Internet Systems at the Indiana University Kelley School of Business, has been observing this emerging trend for the past seven years, along with colleagues at the University of Sydney and Iowa State University. Their recent article published in the Harvard Business Review - AI with a Human Face: The case for – and against – digital employees - examines how digital humans interact with us and when it is most appropriate to use them.

One significant advantage of digital humans is the ability to provide personalised services at scale. They can interact with customers and employees one-to-one, offering tailored support and assistance. This level of personalisation can improve customer satisfaction and loyalty, making it a significant benefit for businesses looking to enhance customer experience.

However, there are also potential drawbacks to using digital humans. Some people may not be comfortable interacting with a virtual assistant, and it could lead to negative experiences for those customers. Additionally, there are concerns about data privacy and security, as well as the risk of bias being built into the algorithms that power digital humans.

“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.”

Digital humans already do some things better

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 the design and appearance of digital humans, when they should be deployed, and what contexts are best.

They identify four types of virtual, digital humans: virtual agents, assistants, influencers and companions.

  • Virtual agents complete specific, one-time tasks like those performed by chatbots and are increasingly used as digital instructors in videos and presentations. Dennis and his co-authors cite digital humans used at international airports to instruct travellers.
  • Virtual assistants help users complete specific tasks and often develop personal relationships with users, which is why they are often used as rehabilitation therapists, personal assistants, and coaches.
  • Virtual influencers - already successfully employed by the fashion industry -  “supply their human followers with experiences” but are not “personalised.” 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 customisation”. 
  • Virtual companions hold great promise in elder care, and early childhood education, say researchers. “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.”

“Digital humans can be a much better choice when it comes to communicating complex instructions or describing features of a product," the researchers write. "This is why YouTube instruction videos – rather than pages of text – are so successful,

"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.”

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