Hardware

Peter Cochrane's Blog: Synthetic people

Soon you won't know man from machine

Written on KLM1515 flying from Norwich to Amsterdam and dispatched to silicon.com the same day via a company wired LAN

I've just been looking at avatars and synthetic people over the past 15 years and must say the progress that's been made is very impressive - from the 'blocky and doll like' mannequins we currently see on social websites to the characters appearing in Hollywood movies alongside real actors.

It seems to me the real breakthroughs have been in the realm of body dynamics, skin and hair rendering and, most of all, building in human imperfections. Non-symmetrical faces and bodies, pock-marked skin, hair that is uneven and individually tapered, colour and texture variations and ugly movement seem to carry the day.

I have always held that it is our physical and mental imperfections that both define us and make us interesting, and it certainly seems to be the case with our facsimiles!

Only five years ago the perfect skin and movement of the synthetics instantly gave them away. Today they are standing in for real people during movie action scenes involving serious dangers or impossible acts for real humans. Soon I suspect they will be replacing actors in more sedentary scenes - and I can see the possibility of a whole new genre with movies, TV shows and adverts totally populated by synthetic people.

Such a possibility would of course leverage the latent talent of those 'undiscovered' by Hollywood and break the mould of an industry first cast in the 1920s.

I think I can safely predict the first industry to adopt, adapt and perfect this technology will be the purveyors of porn. They are always on the cusp of the technology wave, and have both the money and motivation to try out new things.

Next I reckon synthetic people will be used for advertising. Of course the really interesting developments in this area will be the usual 'stage left entries' created by those working out of bedrooms or garages.

Other uses for this tech will include interfaces with machines, as well as medical and other personal services.

The big challenge will soon be: is it a real or synthetic person I am conversing with? To answer this we may soon need a second Turing Test capable of detecting the presence or lack of real humanity.

One upside is that we might feel a bit better about being beaten at chess by a machine that is less handsome or pretty than we are. Or more generally, those who feel uncomfortable interfacing with machines may feel at peace talking to a human-like face, whilst some might not even notice it is a machine at all!

How long for all this to happen? I reckon a decade should see it all as commonplace!

About Peter Cochrane

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

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