How Declining Populations Increase The Need For Virtual Human Agents
What happens in Japan today is likely going to happen to where you live within the coming years. A fact that directly impacts the potential use cases for Virtual Human Agents (VHAs).
In many ways, Japan is at the forefront of technology trends like AI-powered Virtual Human Agents (VHAs) and demographic trends like a rapidly aging population. However, these trends will come to define the future of not just Japan but countries across the globe. As a result, VHAs will take on many jobs, tasks and functions that might initially surprise you. Something that is already starting to happen in Japan.
The Japanese population bomb
Japan’s population of 127 million people is set to decrease by 0.23% in 2018. While perhaps not alarming on its own, projections show that a sharp drop could be around the corner. Unless the trend is reversed, there may be as few as 87 million people calling Japan home by 2050.
At the same time, Japan is experiencing what is referred to as ‘super-aging’. In 2014, it was estimated that a quarter of the population was 65 years or older. By 2050, that number could climb to a third.
In other words, there will be fewer people in the workforce that will need to provide and look after more people who have retired, as well as younger generations in childcare and schools, and a general increase in the need for social services, such as healthcare.
To remain competitive, as well as continue to provide optimal service to all generations, Japan has increasingly turned towards new, emerging technologies, such as robots and Virtual Human Agents. The latter not only perform tasks such as online customer service and work as in-office assistants but also take on many social roles, including as the platform for smart home systems. While impressive, VHAs have only scratched the surface of their full market potential in Japan.
Japan today is you tomorrow
By now, you might be thinking to yourself: ‘so how does that affect where I live?’. Good question. The answer is that many other countries face similar demographic headaches. By 2050, a quarter of the population of countries like South Korea, Spain, Italy, Germany, and France will be 65 or older. More than 21% of Americans will be 65 or older, compared to just 13% in 2010. Almost 24% of China’s 1.35 billion people will be in the same category.
Even in areas that are currently experiencing rapid population growth, the long-term trends are that birth rates will drop and the population’s average age will rise. In other words, what is happening in Japan now will happen where you live within the coming years and decades.
The answer to these trends will likely be the same as the one that Japan has already made: increased use of technology in both work environments and to undertake social roles and functions.
The many roles of VHAs
All of which has a direct impact on the future for VHAs, such as the ones from Connectome. In case you haven’t met one yet, a VHA is an AI-powered virtual entity that acts and reacts similarly to a human being. It is the smart, human face of technology that can give real-time, personalized answers, advice, take and give instructions, handle tasks and assignment as well as perform a wide array of services for you — whether you are at home, at work or elsewhere.
Thanks to their human-like nature, VHAs are also perfectly suited to interact with and relate to people of all ages.
Again, you may be asking yourself questions. Such as: ‘why is this important?’ and ‘how does all of this relate aging societies?’ Well, I’m glad you asked.
Our aging societies that are also becoming more complex mean that we will increasingly be reliant on technology to carry out an ever-growing number of tasks and services for us. To be able to cope, humans will need to have a way of interacting with technology that is both more simple and intuitive than is the case today.
Research clearly shows that humans who interact with VHAs have high-quality experiences with astounding results. For example, in healthcare where VHAs have proven to increase empathy amongst medical students, boost patient honesty with doctors and have been successfully trialled in the treatment of patients with autism. Healthcare is far from the only space where virtual human agents show great results — and even greater promise. International banks and the Daimler/Mercedes car company are trialling the technology, which could easily slot into roles in many other industries. In New Zealand, there is now a VHA that works as a teacher. In other words, anywhere where humans interact with technology — and where technology could substitute humans — VHAs have a role to play.
Making technology human
VHA’s looks set to become the key 21st century ‘intermediary’ between humans and technology. The rising complexity of society and the tasks we will rely on technology to take care of means that the intermediary needs to be capable of both receiving and relaying complex communication and instruction. Here, the AI intelligence and virtual human form of VHA play a vital role. One a small percentage of our communication relies on what we actually say. Intonation, gestures and facial expressions carry much more meaning than words. VHAs’ human form and AI ‘brain’ means that they are able to both understand us and interact with us with sophistication and human-likeness that systems like Amazon’s Alexa and online chatbots can only dream about.
Something that will become more and more important in the future, as many people already know the feeling of information overload and struggle to keep up with ever-evolving software and hardware.
To quote world-famous android researcher Dr Ishiguro from an interview with Singularity Hub last year:
“The human brain is set up to recognize and interact with humans. […] Technology has to adapt to us, because we cannot adapt fast enough to it, as it develops so quickly.”
This is one of the most important qualities of Virtual Human Agents: their ability to move technology towards us, instead of human beings having to run faster and faster to barely keep up with technology.