“The best thing to hold onto in life is each other”.
– Audrey Hepburn
When discussing the overview of Human-Like Artificial Intelligence, the final step that needed to be passed to blur the lines between human and Artificial Intelligence was the need to pass both the Turing Test and bridging the Uncanny Valley.
When a human-like AI is able to do so, the AI will be considered as close to a human as possible without actually being a human. The implications of what this actually means have been explored for a long time.
In the overview of human-like Artificial Intelligence, the reason why humanity has been fascinated with this concept for so long is because of the implications of the answer. By challenging the very precepts of what is used to define a human, we start to question whether it is acceptable, or even at all possible, for a human and a non-human to have equal standing with each other.
It is with this heavy question that we start to understand the difficulties of defining and understanding the various categories of human-like Artificial Intelligence. In this post, we explore what happens when we start to take the inhabitants of the virtual world and craft them in the image of a human. Virtual Assistants, Virtual Human Agents and Humanoids are the products of our imagination; and this makes the relationship we, as humans, have with them all the more exciting.
First, however, we need to understand what defines a virtual being.
What is a Virtual Being?
A virtual being is defined as “a character you know isn’t real but with whom you can build a 2-way emotional relationship”. At its core, it refers to
While the concept of a being that exists only in the virtual instantly brings to mind virtual reality, virtual beings can exist outside of virtual reality. At their core, virtual beings are meant to replicate the life of a human with the only exception that they live in the virtual realm.
Some can communicate like chatbots, others are meant only as characters in a video game. Some have jobs like Lil Miquela and others seem to blur the lines between reality and virtual reality but they all have their own backstories, histories and virtual lives like real humans do. It is the history and backstories of virtual beings that allow the human to make the connection with the virtual and have an emotional relationship.
While the definition of what a virtual being is can seem like an open-ended copout with no real meaning, the key to what is defined as a virtual being is that a virtual being must be realistic enough that a person can form that emotional relationship.
If one wants to consider a timeline of virtual beings, then the first virtual being can be described as the first character in an offline or online video game, movie, television series or programme that an individual first formed an invested emotional relationship with, a relationship on the same level as a friend or lover. Yet while the definition of what defines a virtual being lends itself to such an open timeline, the reality is, virtual beings do have real-world uses and real-life implications on its users.
It is this emotional relationship that separates the original use of virtual assistants, humanoids and virtual human agents from virtual beings. When we first think of emotional relationships with virtual beings, the first image that comes to mind is that of a lonely otaku taking the virtual bond into reality and treating the virtual being with the same level of emotional dedication as they would a human.
As famous a stereotype as it is, the lonely otaku is but one of the many uses of a virtual being. As we will explore, the virtual being is one in which only the imagination of humans limit the capabilities.
Virtual Beings and Video Games – The Dangers of Deliberate Emotional Manipulation
We start on our journey of exploration with the most famous origins of virtual beings – video games. Growing up right at the beginning of the Massive Multiplayer-Online genres, many of us would be familiar with the concept of avatars – the graphical representation of a player in a game.
Playing games like Maplestory, Runescape and Ragnarok Online, many of us would have built relationships with other players. Getting married in the game, telling them stories about our personal real-world lives and feeling each other’s pain at a loss was all par for the course. The emotional and social aspect of these games was what built a community and kept players united. Yet these avatars are not the same as virtual beings. The key difference was that we knew that behind these avatars were real people.
With the advent of portable gaming devices, there became a market for new genres of games that could be easily brought from the home into the wider world. From dating-simulators to role-playing games, it became easier for people to start having an emotional connection with their on-screen characters. The lack of a human to control the character’s behaviors were what made these true virtual beings. Whether by design or serendipity, games have increasingly relied on playing with our emotions to make us more invested in the video games that we play. While playing on our emotions make good games, there are players, like Sal9000, a man who married a video game character, who are manipulated into investing enough emotional attachment to take the next step and start to view pixels on a screen as humans.
The move towards manipulating the emotions of players as a deliberate game design choice is what has made video games the potential originator of virtual being.s While not every player will get married to their game, there will always be those who will be invested enough to consider the thought.
Dr. Virtual Beings or How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love Emotional Attention
By their very definition, virtual beings demand emotional attention from their users. However, just as how video games can channel that emotional attention into a negative response, by deliberate design, it is possible to channel that emotional attention into a positive support network.
Like many advancements in computing technology, the advancement of virtual beings came from the video games industry. In one example, the technology developed for virtual reality games became tools used to treat children with chronic regional pain syndrome.
For virtual beings, their usefulness as tools outside of video game characters came when researchers used virtual beings as a way to manage acutely stressful situations. Virtual beings do not even have to be human. In the field of senior care, virtual pets have been used as a way to combat loneliness and depression.
In fact, virtual beings do not even need to have an online body to provide support. Note what the definition of virtual beings are. The most important requirement of virtual beings is that they must be able to allow an individual to develop a two-way emotional relationship. In the field of behavioural and mental health care, virtual human conversational agents – chatbots and virtual assistants – have been used to provide online healthcare information and support and serve as a clinical interviewer, both positions which require the development of trust between the participants. Developed by researchers at the University of Southern California, SimCoach and SimSensei have been used to assist US military families in getting access to care.
In SimCoach, compelling backstories have been developed to help make the virtual beings accessible and relatable. For example, Bill, a SimCoach virtual being, has had Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and experienced depression. He was also a Vietnam War veteran and retired as a Non-Commissioned Officer. While Bill has a completely different backstory from the one developed for Lil Miquela, what is common between the two is that it is the story of the virtual being which allows them to become relatable and feel human.
It is this relatability that has allowed virtual beings to provide the emotional connection for those who, by deliberate action or unfortunate circumstances, are unable to obtain in the real world. From video games to SimCoach, imagine a world where those who wish to participate in Alcoholic Anonymous meetings but are unable to do so physically are able to obtain the support they need with virtual beings at a meeting. The ability to harness technology to improve the emotional wellbeing of humanity is what virtual beings are promising.
Virtual Beings – Hurting, Healing and Indifferent?
Virtual beings are also not limited in the scope in which they can be used. They’re described about in the negative because those generate the largest headlines. Yet, as the medical, sociological and psychological field have shown, real progress towards the positive usage and real-world applications of virtual beings have been developed.
Outside of the major positive and negative effects that virtual beings have had, there is one more major effect that would elicit a meh in most people. Virtual beings are now being used as social media influencers. When the Influencer culture creates the veneer of reality that has little basis in reality, we start to question if we really need humans to influence humans. Take the case of Lil Miquela and bermudaisbae. They both follow the rules of Instagram Influencers, young, beautiful, trendy and living the life we all dream we could live with one big difference – they’re both human-like Artificial Intelligence Virtual Beings. They are robots. They are not real. Yet, even after they were revealed as non-flesh and blood, instead of feeling lied to, people sent their Instagram followers through the roof.
While we can argue that Lil Miquela and
“A Loving Heart is the Truest Wisdom.”
– Charles Dickens
In an overview of Human-Like Artificial Intelligence and (writer’s note: remove preceding words for standalone publication) at the beginning of this story, a heavy question was asked. We challenged the assumptions of what it means to be humans; and in doing so, we questioned if humans and non-humans could ever have equal standing. After taking a journey through the possibilities of virtual beings and human-like Artificial Intelligence, the answer is clear: Yes, It Is Possible.
It is possible for a human and a non-human to have an equal standing but not in the original meaning of the statement. It is not currently possible for humans to treat non-humans as humans. However, it is entirely possible for humanity to use human-like Artificial Intelligence to create a proxy that can be interacted with like a human.
The nuanced difference is entirely down to the Charles Dickens quote at the beginning of this section. While the technology may not yet exist to replicate a physical heart, the development of virtual beings has allowed for the development of the expressions necessary to show a loving heart.
The beginnings of virtual beings may have had a murky past, technology is, at the end of the day, neither good nor evil. For every Sal9000 that exist, there will be even more who are able to receive the care they need from Bill. The loving heart is the truest wisdom because the best thing to hold onto in life is each other – human or virtual being regardless.