You may have seen Talespin’s announcement earlier this week for VR and AI soft skills training. It’s just the proverbial tip of the iceberg of what’s to come as artificial intelligence begins to integrate into virtual reality. Talespin is targeting a serious issue – developing attributes such as communication, leadership, and empathy in employees. And the current solutions – the ever-present PDFs, videos, and even interactive websites – have been woefully inadequate.
Enter the virtual human, an avatar designed to foster interpersonal skill development.
VR and AI Soft Skills Training
If VR is slow to gain traction in the consumer market, it’s taking off in enterprise environments. Here’s a quick description of Talespin’s virtual human from VRScout.
Utilizing a combination of interactive elements, including speech recognition, AI, Natural Language Processing (NLP), and narrative branching, Talespin’s virtual character is able to simulate realistic speech patterns, body-language, and mannerisms to simulate lifelike conversations as if speaking to an actual human-being. The company hopes this virtual human will help various organizations with the training and development of employees, specifically in areas regarding negotiation, communication, even conflict resolution.
There’s one thing that struck us in our interaction with Mica, Magic Leap’s AI-driven avatar at Sundance. Body language and mannerisms of digital beings are just as important as what they say.
Possibly more important. Avatars that can answer any question seem disconnected from human experience. Avatars that smile, yawn, act a little awkward, are all-too-believable. Mica isn’t even capable of speech at this point, and she pretty much left us speechless. We register humanness by so much more than words alone.
The paradox of Technology
The irony in Talespin’s solution is that we’re using more technology to resolve the challenges of living in a highly technological world. As Talespin put it,
As the world becomes increasingly automated and technologically advanced, nurturing human-to-human interactions is more important than ever.
Before you react negatively, consider that we do this in other areas as well. Commuting to work may not be the most pleasant experience, but we usually don’t suggest that people walk the entire way. We look for other forms of technology from bikes to mass transit to improve the experience. Technology is always a possible solution to the challenges of technology advances. Otherwise, we’d still be cave dwellers arguing about whether or not to keep the fire burning.
Wired has a detailed description of what it’s like to interact with one of the avatars. Note this is not a project just getting underway. It’s already in use by a number of Fortune 100 companies (they’ll be identified later this year).
Here’s how the company envisions our soft skills development in the future.
On the face of it, the use of VR and AI for soft skills training looks like a win-win. From the organization’s standpoint, they can select different types of avatars. Take your pick: digital beings with social intelligence, emotional intelligence, or advanced artificial intelligence.
For employees, they’ll no longer have to roleplay in front of colleagues that they also eat lunch or carpool with. Avatars can be programmed for individual experiences, and they don’t get bored by repeated questions like human instructors do. They’re theoretically available anytime, day or night. Like the Khan Academy, always there when you need them.
In fact, the Khan Academy’s tagline is an omen of what’s to come:
You can learn anything.
For free. For everyone. Forever.
Of course, Talespin’s avatars won’t come cheap. Not at this stage in the development of AI-driven entities. But there was a time – not that long ago, actually – when a service like the Khan Academy was inconceivable. And impossible to do for free. What would they have done? Send the lessons out on CDs? Others tried and were quickly swept into the dustbin of outdated tech. Someday, avatars will be as readily available as a mocha latte. And no more expensive.
The only question will be – like when you’re in the line at Starbucks – which one do I select today?
Actually, that’s a lie. The questions go far deeper than that.
The Real Questions Here
The real challenge will be the willingness to ask how avatars are programmed? Who makes the decisions about their race, gender, background? And how are they used in specific settings?
The avatar highlighted in the initial release is Barry, a gray-haired male with exaggerated age lines. Almost straight out of central casting in Human Resources.
But Barry is only one member of a cohort of virtual characters, Talespin says,
. . . we’re able to create an infinite number of custom learning modules for improving employee skill development in the workplace.
That is what makes the solution so powerful. Like commercial flight simulators, there will be avatars for any scenario. Barry doesn’t exist as a generic avatar, and neither do the others in the cohort. Someone has programmed their responses. Someone will decide to use him – instead of a Hispanic single mom who will have to drop out of college if she’s terminated from her position.
The point here is not to question the value of using avatars. It’s the human decisions that are embedded in their development and use that is the real issue.
We increasingly talk about digital literacy and fluency these days. Our work in the future may need to focus on avatar fluency. It may sound strange to hear that phrase roll off the tongue now. It won’t in another decade.
Why am I assigned to this avatar instead of a different one? How do I know the avatar is an authentic expression of what it means to be human? How do I question its origins? Are these questions even answerable once they become indistinguishable from the real people they represent? If they represent anyone real at all.
Our Future Avatar Instructors
After VR and AI soft skills development takes off, it won’t be long before the avatars are knocking on the door of our educational institutions. Indeed, they already are in the sense that students increasingly rely on AI-driven platforms. The scary part: most of them (and their faculty) don’t even realize to what extent they are already using basic forms of artificial intelligence in their everyday work
Add in embodied avatars with human-like emotions and reactions in immersive environments and it’s a whole new world.
The lesson here is not that more technology creates more problems. It’s that with every advance, we need greater human skills. But the pace of technological change is outstripping the pace of human development. You hear a lot of discussions these days about the crisis of education, financial issues, assessment, student preparation for the workforce, etc. Those are all serious issues, in need of innovative solutions.
But Talespin’s use of VR and AI for soft skill development hints at another crisis we’ve yet to even acknowledge, much less address. That our students are rushing headlong into a future of deeply immersive and AI-based environments with essentially no preparation at all.
Emory Craig is a writer, speaker, and VR consultant with extensive experience in art, new media, and higher education. He speaks at global conferences on innovation, education, and ethical technology in the future. He has published widely and worked with the US Agency for International Development, the United Nations, and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Living at the intersection of learning, games, and immersive storytelling, he is fascinated by AI-based avatars, digital twins, and the ethical implications of blurring the boundaries between the real and the virtual.