To many people, avatars are something out of a sci-fi film, or fake IDs people use to act out their fantasies in Second Life. But there is also a growing market for more serious applications of virtual world and 3D technologies in education, retail, and training. In these applications, the avatar is the necessary navigator and the interface with the virtual world.
And some people are taking the idea of the avatar further, attempting to achieve high degrees of realism and personalization, even attempting to reverse the original Hindu idea of the earthly manifestation of a deity by trying to achieve an immortal representation of a human life.
Meanwhile, another kind of human representation of each of us may already be growing out there on the Web and, like other things that grow unseen, may not be benign.
It starts with the old conundrum: Can a computer fool a human into mistaking it for another human? AI software and algorithms are now simulating the thinking processes and outputs of a human interlocutor, like Icogno's Jabberwacky
online chat bot. This is then taken further by a real person answering a roster of questions about him/herself, the answers to which are fed into the AI program, which then learns to think like that person. This is offered as a service by Lifenaut
If you then host the software in an online animation using the latest techniques from robotics, you have an avatar of a specific human being, or at least the first steps towards one. The results can be seen at Project Lifelike or Hanson Robotics, or you can chat with Icogno's Joan.
It is early days, and the results are a long way off perfection. However, the significant change from creating a humanlike robot for a specific function, to trying to create an android pretending to be a human and intended to interact with human beings, is already underway.
One of the main movers in the field is the Terasem Movement Foundation Inc., a non-profit organization funded by endowments from anonymous founders. Its mission is "to promote the geoethical... use of nanotechnology for human life extension."
To this end, the group’s flagship project, Lifenaut, mentioned earlier, offers two services: Mindfile creates an online avatar loaded with the customer's "attitudes, values, mannerisms, and beliefs,” replete with biographical details and documents. Bio File then offers indefinite cryogenic storage of your DNA in the hope that "future technology may be able to grow you a new body via ectogenesis and your mind file may be able to be downloaded into it, enabling you to live on indefinitely."
Lifenaut's Mindfile service is free, but the organization says that, while this will continue to be the policy for basic accounts, premium services will be added in the future for a fee. A Bio File costs $1 per day, or a one-off payment of $8,950 for indefinite storage.
The publication New Scientist takes this seriously enough to have made it the subject of an editorial and a cover feature about a staffer trying the Lifenaut experience by creating her own Mindfile.
The editorial, while acknowledging that it is early days still, throws in a comparison to the agricultural and industrial revolutions, concluding: "The rise of the avatar could change our ideas about what it means to be human."
I don't think so. New Scientist admits "that in order to become truly like you, a Lifenaut avatar would probably need a lifetime's worth of conversations with you." In other words, avatars created like this will have the personalities of self-obsessed techno-geeks. I can see the day when the first avatar achieves self-awareness and then commits suicide.
In the meantime, while we obsess over recording the trivia of our "exciting" lives (as Panasonic never tires of telling us, “Everything matters!”), the CIA is leading the aggregation of our online activity via predictive analytics, an activity that could, in the view of at least one observer, end in creating "the very technologies that will ultimately obliterate the last semblance of global digital privacy for Internet users."
We already have online personae, made up of all the traces we leave behind on the Net, and the data built up by the people, corporations, and government bodies we have dealings with, and their perceptions and conclusions, right or wrong, legal or illegal, about us.
When this information is aggregated -- and what is the G-Cloud
about, if not aggregating data? -- this will become our avatar, the entity with which we interface with electronic government; an entity with our name on it, the actions of which we are answerable for in law, but over which we have little or no control.
— George Taylor worked in IT in both public and private sectors for over 20 years. He is a citizen of the UK.