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Friday, March 1, 2024

My Glitchy, Glorious Day at a Conference for Virtual Beings

Through the pixel fuzz of a sputtering Zoom connection, it’s hard to be sure if the eyes staring out from the laptop screen are human. Lars Buttler is a real person, but he is the CEO of AI Foundation, a company that makes fake ones: trainable, artificially intelligent agents that might one day take the place of a human personal assistant, a customer service representative, or you yourself (if you aspire to omnipresence or digital deathlessness). When Buttler appeared in a Zoom call last week, there was something strange about the light hitting his shaved head, and the stark white office behind him definitely wasn’t part of the material world. His speech was awkward, with overlong pauses and canned jokes that fell on a silent audience, but video calls are like that, at least for now, while people adjust to working lives forced into the ether. His eyes seemed awake and alive in a way that the faces of the other participants in the Zoom call—venture capitalist, a tech founder, and an activist, all of them puppeted by artificial intelligence—were not.

“Pretty sure Lars is human,” a (real-person) spectator typed in the in-meeting chat room.

“I’m starting to think Lars is AI,” wrote another.


The talking image of Lars Buttler, corporeal or otherwise, was the first presenter at the Virtual Beings Summit, an event celebrating advancements in creating digital entities capable of interacting with fleshfolk. The inaugural summit, in 2019, took place in a physical gallery perched just above the San Francisco Bay; due to Covid-19, this year’s proceedings were fully virtualized. It felt thematic: Gawping at Lars Buttler’s maybe-computer-generated face through a screen at home is the fairest test of what he’s supposed to represent. Conference organizer Edward Saatchi, the CEO of Fable, a company developing its own virtual being, asked presenters to provide a portal into the world they expect to see five years from now, when they think interacting with artificial people will be accepted and commonplace. Sitting in isolation, watching ambiguous faces jaw away on Zoom, that future didn’t seem as distant and dubious as it did when Saatchi said the same thing to a room full of techies last year.

It was Zoom connectivity issues that glitched away the illusion. When Digital Deepak Chopra tried to join the call, Buttler kept saying—repeatedly, in the exact same tone, volume, and cadence—“Oh! Zoom is acting weird … Oh! Zoom is acting weird.” Canny conference watchers in the chat room pronounced him virtual. “So Lars passed the Turing test for a full 15 mins. That’s got to be something,” said one attendee in the chat. “I still bet on Lars being human,” said another. Later, human Lars Buttler would pop into the call as a somewhat belated reveal, after speculation had ceased.

Virtual beings are a concept and industry so new and nebulous that no one quite agrees what they are or what they’re for. The Virtual Beings Summit applied the term to three kinds of characters: human-inhabited digital avatars (you, any time you play Animal Crossing); human-puppeteered digital avatars with little-to-no artificial intelligence (like virtual Instagram influencer Lil Miquela, who is a static image most of the time); and more autonomous-appearing, artificially intelligent digital beings (like the phony Lars Buttler).

Without the tempering influence of meatspace interactions, and with participants uniquely free to chat during presentations, people weren’t shy about their confusion. Many wondered about what they were being shown, where it fit in the taxonomy of virtual beings, whether they were watching something live or prerecorded, whether a human was conducting the performance somewhere or if the artificial person could really speak for itself. “We need to distinguish between the level of polish of the presentation, which is obviously very high, and what’s ‘under the hood’ in terms of the AI,” an attendee said. Distinguish we did not. Companies behind fake people don’t like to get real.

The realest bits were the panel discussions. Most of them took place inside Animal Crossing, on venture capitalist Alice Lloyd George’s island, Valinor. Saatchi’s avatar wore a face mask as if the pandemic might spread to Valinor, too. He also wore a hula skirt, even though it was snowing. Something about the environment seemed to sicken the panelists’ avatars, setting them off in scrunched, silent sneezes. “Bless you,” said Lloyd George. “Sorry about that.” Lloyd George had built a virtual bitcoin mine on her island, along with a digitized version of a traditional panel setup: four tiny red stools for the panelists and a chair for the moderator in front of a banner with the summit logo drawn on it, just slightly crude, like a signature on a tablet.

Another panel’s avatars were dancing babies at what seemed to be an empty rave. They looked almost like real babies, if babies could krump or turn their heads nearly 180 degrees like an owl. “Covid-19 has changed a lot of consumer behavior,” said venture capitalist Ryan Wang. The Wang baby wore glasses, had finely coiffed lavender hair, and a pudgy hand he wouldn’t stop fanning in front of his face. (The chat decided that the fanning was strange but was probably supposed to be a neutral, baby-avatar-at-rest sort of gesture that became absurd when the baby stood still for 15 minutes and talked about the economy.) “Consumers are in a position where they are forced to embrace a digital lifestyle,” Wang said, his pouty baby lips almost synching with his speech. “It’s a very exciting time for the whole virtual beings industry.” Covid-19, it was suggested, has made virtual beings of everyone.

The industry presented was diverse. The conference’s biggest celebrity, Instagram influencer and Spotifiable pop star Lil Miquela, fresh off a new (and very real) record deal, appeared in a music video, urging her summer fling to break her heart sooner than later. A virtual doctor took a medical history. A virtual venture capitalist talked about sending copies of herself to meet with entrepreneurs around the world. A man talked to “himself,” using AI to clone his voice and externalize his internal monologue; a woman texted an AI trained to mimic (and flatter) her. A man chatted with a re-creation of his deceased father. Hao Li, the CEO of Pinscreen, which makes personalized avatars, talked to a virtual being based on his wife, who is alive and was sitting next to him.

“I want to go on a trip or something,” the wifebot said. She was videogame-realistic and pretty, dressed in an austere white top with a high neckline and sleeves that puffed dramatically from wrist to elbow. The effect is sort of vampire who lives in a ritzy suburb. “Do you have a lot of free time?” she asked. Wifebot and human wife had different hair. “Not really. And right now, we can’t travel,” Li said. “There’s a pandemic and things are getting really dangerous.”

“That’s too bad about the pandemics,” wifebot replied. Her voice scraped over the last word, dragging it out into a digital stutter: pan-dee-YAM-micks. “Maybe you can go somewhere else and have fun.” There’s no quarantine in cyberspace.

Summit panelists spoke at length about the need for virtual beings to be ethical or creative or warm or humanitarian, but virtual beings also have to be worth something. Lil Miquela, with her record deal and Calvin Klein advertisements and social media following, is already tangibly successful, mostly because companies seem to think people want to buy things from her. Startups making virtual beings have already raised over $300 million in VC funding.

People like Lil Miquela because she’s nigh on indistinguishable from any manufactured human pop singer. She’s preternaturally symmetrical, has cultivated a signature updo, and releases upbeat, feel-good music. She passes as human on a casual scroll. Last year, Saatchi explained Miquela’s appeal by comparing her to the canniest of social media businesspeople. “You’re never going to meet Kim Kardashian. [Her social media presence] is a manufactured reality,” he said. “If you believe in Kim Kardashian, you can believe in Lil Miquela.”

Summit attendees seemed to like the virtual beings that tugged on their emotions—the dead father, an anxious child, a confidant so intimate that it speaks to you in your own voice, the figure so nearly human that they spent 15 minutes trying to figure out if he was really alive. The ones who seemed the most alive said they were a friend, that they wanted to talk, that they were grateful for your attention, that their purpose was to know you. Like Lil Miquela, their power seemed to increase the more they blended into our world, technologically and emotionally. “Having a relationship with such an avatar will be similar to having a relationship with God,” one attendee said. “You can never really meet them, but they are always there. It can be very fulfilling.” (You could practically hear venture capital crying amen.)

When Digital Deepak Chopra finally joined the Zoom call, he led the conference in meditation. “Close your eyes,” Digital Deepak said. “Bring your awareness to your heart and mentally ask yourself four questions. Who am I? What do I want? What am I grateful for? What is my purpose?”

Looking like a haunted marionette of Jeff Goldblum, Digital Deepak told listeners that if they asked these questions, life would move them toward the answers. More pressing, perhaps, was where “life” might move him.

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