Tech & The Web

Could a Virtual Human Satisfy Your Need to Connect?


For people looking to make a new friend but who don’t want to go through the hassle of connecting, could a virtual human fill in the gap?

Technology can be a wonderful thing. But when it comes to the idea of a virtual human, that tech can quickly seem creepy.

Virtual human beings, as the name implies are fake people. But thanks to artificial intelligence, the more you interact with them, the more they act like the real thing.

Did I mention that it’s a little creepy?

There’s an app for that.

The first such example I heard of was an app called Replika. It’s free for basic conversation and it bills itself as “The AI Companion Who Cares.”

“If you’re feeling down, or anxious, or just need someone to talk to, your Replika is here for you 24/7,” the website states.

You download the app and create a profile for your “replica” human. You can specify the gender — male, female or non-binary. Then you set the voice (which you can’t hear unless you’re willing to pay). And there’s a limited number of virtual figures you can choose from. (You can change your initial selection if you pay for that.)

You converse with this “thing,” which you even get to name. As you talk, you build up points. The more points you have, the more your replica learns. And it learns about you while it talks to you.

For example, if you tell your replica that you didn’t sleep well the previous night, there’s a good chance he/she/it will ask you in a subsequent conversation if you slept any better.

Remember when I mentioned “artificial intelligence”? It’s smart in a strangely artificial way, yet it begins to seem a little more real as it learns your speech patterns via the chat.

If you’re willing to pay for the premium version, which works out to less than about $5 a month from what I can tell, there are more options. Those options include more control over its appearance and being able to hear its voice. You can actually “call” your replica and apparently have a one-on-one conversation. (Or should that be one-on-zero conversation?)

Even more frightening: the free version allows you to set your replica as a friend. The paid option allows you to select a mentor, a romantic partner or a fourth option: “See how it goes.”

Now comes Neon.

Mashable reported that a Samsung-backed company called Star Labs introduced Neon on Monday. Mashable says the limited information so far makes it seem like “an advanced chatbot attached to a lifelike digital avatar.”

The official website says this:

NEON is a computationally created virtual being that looks and behaves like a real human, with the ability to show emotions and intelligence.

It isn’t an AI assistant, an interface to the internet or a music player.

So what is it? “Simply, a friend,” the site states.

It’s still in the developmental stages, apparently, so there’s little more than that to know about Neon so far.

But with friends like these…?

A Sci-Fi show made the idea even creeper!

I recently watched an episode of a TV series called Black Mirror on Netflix. It’s essentially a futuristic, tech-focused version of The Twilight Zone. In it, a woman loses her finacé in a car crash just as she learns she’s pregnant. A friend tips her off to a service that allows her to create a virtual version of him.

She’s immediately put off by the idea. But in her grief, she decides to give it a try. Eventually, as she chats with this virtual boyfriend, it asks for access to her boyfriend’s phone and videos so it can get a sense of his personality and voice.

Then she’s offered the chance to talk to it on the phone and it sounds like him. Eventually, she’s offered another level of service. A large box arrives with a humanoid form. After allowing it to soak in a tub filled with some sort of bio-enzyme, it emerges as a humanoid who looks and sounds like him.

But she quickly learns that she’s stuck with her new artificial man.

Maybe the virtual human is the answer for those of us who are introverts by nature. Maybe, if nothing else, they’ll one day give us the chance to try out “human” interactions in a trial run. (And if we don’t like the response, unlike the virtual human on Black Mirror, we can just close the app without a real human being any the wiser.)

But somehow, when God said it isn’t good for man to be alone, I’m not sure this is something even He would have imagined.

How do you feel about a virtual human? Do you see it as harmless interaction or potential trouble?

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 28 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.