Comment: Avatars and the digital-human gold rush

Amelia M Hemphill, a technology reporter and documentary filmmaker, on her journey of creating a personal virtual avatar.

Last year, I began an experimental project. I wanted to create a hyper-realistic, 3D version of my entire body and face: Amelia 2.0. My avatar, or digital twin, would represent me physically in the virtual world and interact with people in real time across several different platforms. 

With the help of a 3D-scanning company and the Unreal Engine technology from video-game developer Epic Games, my dream became a reality. But what would the future hold for my slightly creepy creation? One day, will she be powered entirely by AI and work independently from me? And how will businesses make money from this fast-approaching digital-human gold rush? 

One global pandemic and a few technology upgrades later, and many of those answers are starting to emerge. Synthetic media (video content generated using AI and machine learning) is taking off and digital humans are becoming a budget-friendly solution looking for a problem. They are popping up as fashion models, influencers, receptionists, healthcare advisors and newsreaders. 

Artificial intelligence startups raised $73.4 billion in 2020, according to data from financial-education hub StockApps, while market research by investment analyst Trend Exchange and AI platform UneeQ predicts a 100-fold increase in the use of digital humans for entertainment, customer service and marketing by 2030. 

The new MetaHuman software tool made by Epic Games lets you craft your own photorealistic brand ambassador in just a few minutes – an algorithm or a selfie is all you need. And lots of synthetic-voice startups are emerging, too. AI can clone and bank your voice, or develop a new one for your digital representatives. These could be online language teachers, video game characters, HR assistants... synthetic media is democratizing video storytelling and branded content in a new way. 

Video creation platform Hour One is looking for avatar volunteers to become virtual real-estate agents. Talent agencies, such as Genies, transform and manage the avatars of celebrities. Even YouPorn has created its own synthetic influencer: Jedy Vales is an AI-generated combination of user search preferences.  

But when everyone has the ability to create photorealistic characters and modify video footage using AI, how will we know who or what to trust? Ethical questions surrounding deepfakes, misleading propaganda, porn and identity theft have been around for years. Regular humans are going to have to figure out some real-world solutions to prevent their digital creations running wild or being misused in the virtual world. 

The next step for my digital twin will be to make her a non-fungible token or NFT, to certify her as a unique digital asset. Like any anxious parent, I want to keep track of what she's doing, where she's going and who she's with. And if having a digital double isn't the answer to future-proofing my career or boosting my productivity, maybe one day she'll become a vintage NFT collectible.

This article was first published in Courier issue 43, October/November 2021. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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