Technology plays a big part in our everyday lives, and it seems hard to function without them. In recent years, technological innovation has grown exponentially, in parallel with our dependence on it and many people cannot imagine living life without it.
Against this context, an interesting new phenomenon emerges, known as the “human-like artificial intelligence”. What is this phenomenon, and how is this relevant to the Singaporean context?
Artificial Intelligence in Singapore– Robots
Arguably, the development of robots has been at the forefront and is the physical manifestation of the artificial intelligence revolution. Robots are no strangers, and we see them every day in our midst in Singapore – from the simple tray return robots at Koufu, to the industrial cleaning robots at National University Hospital.
Not forgetting Changi Airport– crowned the world’s best for the past six years–has been relentlessly pursuing automation and robots so much that they have invested $SGD 985 million to build Terminal 4 as a test-bed for airport robots of the future.
The most impressive robot in Singapore is Nadine, an Artificial Intelligent (AI) humanoid receptionist working at Nanyang Technological University and AIA Singapore. What makes her unique is the ability to accomplish tasks that would otherwise require human intelligence. She smiles, speak with hand gestures, maintains eye contact during conversations and can even shake your hand! Most interestingly, unlike conventional robots, she has her own personality, mood and emotions.
By incorporating disciplines like psychology into robotics, artificial intelligence has evolved to a stage where they can now possess human-like emotional and social qualities.
Virtual Human Agents in Singapore
This brings us to a very interesting topic of “human-like artificial intelligence”. A subset of human-like artificial intelligence is the concept of “virtual humans”.
Virtual human agents are essentially artificial intelligent robots; however, they are projected onto visual outputs such as TVs or computer screens instead of operating from a human-like robotic body.
In the future, we might probably even see them as holograms like Cortana from the popular game series, Halo.2016, the virtual human Nicole, was introduced to mingled with Singaporeans at a public roadshow.
The virtual human drew some enthusiastic and positive responses, while others appeared apathetic and argued that these virtual humans can never replace traditional interactions between humans. However, interactions with Nicole might have been slightly awkward since the development of virtual humans were still relatively new.
Since then, Singapore has ramped up research efforts in virtual humans. In the following year, the National Research Foundation of Singapore invested close to $500,000 for the “Realistic Immersion with Virtual Humans” research project. The project aims to address the existing weakness of virtual humans to fully mimic the naturalness of behaviour found in humans, as seen with Nicole.
The heavily funded project demonstrates the national commitment of Singapore to grow and develop virtual humans to their fullest potential.
Fast-forward 2019, virtual human agents have gotten more realistic, smarter and better. Many different industries and businesses are beginning to take notice of the power of virtual humans working in various functions.
There is now a bridge for businesses who seek to harness this technology and integrate virtual humans into their workplaces – Connectome. Connectome is creating the world’s first marketplace of Augmented Reality (AR) enabled virtual human agents to serve diverse functions, reacting in real-time across different devices and locations. They are also working to bring to life the first virtual human receptionist for their co-working space in Amoy Street.
Science and technology have always been surrounded by controversies, and the emergence of virtual human agents is no exception. The exhibition “HUMANS + THE FUTURE OF OUR SPECIES” by Singapore Art Science Museum presents a future world perspective where lines between fiction and reality are blurred.
Likewise, Black Mirror, a science fiction series that explores the dark and unanticipated consequences of technology raises many debatable topics. One of from the White Christmas episode probes viewers, “Are artificial intelligences who are so “human-like” entitled to rights?”
Another key issue is privacy. With their episodic memory, virtual humans can remember the exact date and time of all past conversations, recognise faces, places and even the subtle behaviour differences of individuals.
Virtual humans rely on machine learning to gather new insights and make better decisions. While data collection is an inevitable part of the process, it is intrusive and sensitive. Once all the deceivingly innocent personal information such as shopping purchases, entertainment subscriptions and more are combined, it can paint a picture of you as a person, your health, finances and behaviour.
While it may seem like a jarring idea at first, but would we fall in love with a virtual human like in the movie Her?
Can virtual humans work in our households and be inter-connect through the Internet Of Things (
“Hey, you look tired today. Would you like me to dim the lights, turn on the aircon and play some relaxing music for you to sleep better?”
We wouldn’t know how the future would be, but it won’t be long before we start meeting and greeting a virtual human in Singapore.