Artificial people startups have raised more than $320 million so far

07/15/2020 - 23:23

Dean Takahashi

Virtual beings are artificial people powered by AI, and startups making them have raised more than $320 million to date. That’s one of the facts being highlighted at the Virtual Beings Summit on Wednesday.

The digital-only event will be held on Zoom from 10:30 a.m. Pacific to 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday. It’s the forum for talks on how to create virtual beings and what they’ll be useful for. The speakers will appear only as virtual beings in the conference, specifically as avatars from Fortnite or Animal Crossing: New Horizons.

Virtual beings are a kind of precursor for the Metaverse, the universe of virtual worlds that are all interconnected, like in novels such as Snow Crash and Ready Player One. First you make virtual beings, then you give them a virtual place to inhabit.

The virtual-beings-only event is the brainchild of Fable Studio CEO Edward Saatchi. Fable made the virtual reality experience Wolves in the Walls. This is the third such event, and I’ll be speaking on a panel on the 2D Metaverse, hosted by Rogue venture capitalist Alice Lloyd George. I’ll be appearing as an Animal Crossing character via my daughter’s account.

As far as I know, no one has done this kind of avatar-based conference this way. Gary Whitta has recently made a hit from Animal Talking, a talk show set inside Animal Crossing. But Saatchi is welcoming avatars from multiple worlds.

“I’m super proud,” said Saatchi, in an interview with GamesBeat. “I’m trying to approach the event as a work of art itself, in that it’s almost like an anthology of short scenes from five years in the future.”

Saatchi said that one of the things that will be described at the event is the Virtual Beings Venture Capital Alliance, which brings together investors who are enthusiastic about the space. Saatchi believes that virtual beings will be at the heart of the next great computing operating system. There are virtual companions, like the character in the movie Her, and companies that will try to bring back dead people as virtual beings, such as bringing back movie star James Dean as a virtual actor. The summit will probably be full of people who are welcoming this future of virtual beings, rather than fearing it.

“Elon Musk talks about the terror of AI. But there’s also this really beautiful thing where emotionally we can be moved by it,” Saatchi said. “I’m very proud of [Wolves in the Walls protagonist] Lucy, and I get real emotional seeing the connection between a person talking to Lucy. I think what AI Foundation (with Digital Deepak Chopra) is doing is so ridiculously cool. We can take people on an emotional journey, make them cry, make them laugh, and give them a provocative glimpse of five years in the future.”

Speakers include AI Foundation CEO Lars Buttler; Google Doodles creator Ryan Germick; Shudu creator Cameron-James Wilson, CEO of The Digitals; investor Cyan Banister; virtual reality book author Charlie Fink; Kite & Lightning technical director Ikrima Elhassan; Pietro Gagliano, founder of Transitional Forms; and more.

They’ll discuss topics across digital humans, virtual friends, virtual influencers, conversational AI, machine learning, and more. They’ll be looking at trends from Instagram virtual character Lil Miquela to deepfakes to Amazon’s Alexa to photorealistic avatars. Lil Miquela will do a music video.

“Lil Miquela is the best example I can think of as a persistent character,” Saatchi said.

He said Replika, which gives people a virtual companion to communicate with via text message, is an “amazing example of a two-way relationship where there’s memory built into it.”