Cute or creepy? Say hello to first ‘artificial human’

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Autel Robotics’ EVO 2 greets visitors to the Consumer Electronics Show. AI has major implications in fields such as entertainment and customer service. (AFP)
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Startup Star Labs drew crowds with its avatar demonstration at the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show. (AFP)
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Updated 08 January 2020

Cute or creepy? Say hello to first ‘artificial human’

  • AI-powered avatars modeled on real people spark debate at electronics show

LAS VEGAS: Avatars touted as “artificial humans” created a buzz at the Consumer Electronics Show on Tuesday even as debate swirled on what exactly the digital entities were.

Star Labs, a startup funded by Samsung, showed the painstakingly detailed AI-powered, two-dimensional digital creations to a large crowd, saying they are able to “converse and sympathize” like real people.

A demonstration at CES showed conversations and gestures from the digital creations modeled after real humans.

According to the California-based unit of the South Korean company, the technology allows for the creation of customized digital beings that can appear on displays or video games and could be designed to be “TV anchors, spokespeople, or movie actors” or even “companions and friends.”

Pranav Mistry, the lab’s CEO, said the creations known as NEONs are modeled after people, but can show highly detailed expressions and gestures, and even new characteristics that can be programmed.

“They look very human, in part because they are modeled after a human,” but can even speak in languages the person hadn’t spoken before, Mistry said.

In developing the creations, Mistry said it “felt like magic to us and we wanted to share this magic.”

According to Star Labs, NEON is inspired “by the rhythmic complexities of nature and extensively trained with how humans look, behave and interact.”

While digital avatars have long been able to be programmed for specific tasks, NEON goes further by enabling interactions that can incorporate human emotion.

Although the artificial humans may borrow features from real people, “each NEON has his or her own unique personality and can show new expressions, movements, and dialogues,” the company said.

The NEON creators said the new virtual humans are the product of advances in technologies including neural networks and computational reality.

But the invention did not impress everyone. Ben Wood, of the consultancy CCS Insight, said that he was “underwhelmed” after seeing the NEONS.

He tweeted that, on the booth, they just look like “videos of actors which can be manipulated to do certain actions. I must be missing something.”

Avi Greengart of the consultancy Techsponential said the avatars could be realistic but also “creepy.”

“Leaving aside how impressive the technology is, will NEON be used in ways that people like, just tolerate, or actively hate?” he said.

Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates, said Samsung may be ahead of the pack if it can develop avatars that can show emotions and expressions, but also questioned the potential for abuse.

“It has major implications for many fields like customer service, help desk functions, entertainment, and of course could also be used to ‘fake’ a human interacting with a live person for bad or illegal purposes.”

The announcement comes amid a proliferation of AI-manipulated computer videos known as “deepfakes,” and growing concerns about how they could be used to deceive or manipulate.

But Mistry said the computation techniques of deepfakes are “completely different” than those used for NEON.


Thailand finance minister: economy to recover next year with 4% growth

Updated 23 November 2020

Thailand finance minister: economy to recover next year with 4% growth

  • Economy had bottomed but recovery was not fast as the battered tourism sector hurt supply chains
  • Budget for the next fiscal year will still focus on boosting domestic activity

BANGKOK: Thailand’s economy is expected to grow 4 percent in 2021 after a slump this year and fiscal policy will support a tourism-reliant economy struggling from the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, the finance minister said on Monday.
Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy shrank a less than expected 6.4 percent in the third quarter from a year earlier after falling 12.1 percent in the previous three months.
The economy had bottomed but recovery was not fast as the battered tourism sector, which accounts for about 12 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), has also hurt supply chains, Finance minister Arkhom Termpittayapaisith said.
“Without the COVID, our economy could have expanded 3 percent this year, he said. “As we expect a 6 percent contraction this year, there is the output gap of 9 percent,” he told a business forum.
“Next year, we expect 4 percent growth, which is still not 100 percent yet,” Arkhom said, adding it could take until 2022 to return to pre-pandemic levels.
There is still fiscal policy room to help growth from this year’s fiscal budget and some from rehabilitation spending, he said.
The budget for the next fiscal year will still focus on boosting domestic activity, Arkhom said, and the current public debt of 49 percent of GDP was manageable.
Of the government’s 1 trillion baht ($33 billion) borrowing plan, 400 billion would be for economic revival, of which about 120 billion-130 billion has been approved, Arkhom said.
He wants the Bank of Thailand to take more action short term on the baht, which continued to rise on Monday, despite central bank measures announced on Friday to rein in the currency strength.
“They have done that and they have their measures... which should be introduced gradually and more intensely,” Arkhom said.