Edward Saatchi, the CEO of Fable Studio and maker of Emmy-winning virtual reality experiences, participated in a thoughtful conversation about “virtual beings” at our recent GamesBeat Summit 2020 event.

I called the session “We are who we pretend to be,” after the moral of story in one of my favorite novels, Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night. The novel is about an American spy in World War II who does too good a job at his cover role of being a Nazi propagandist. The moral is: “We are who we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”

We chose to talk about the ethics and promise of virtual humans, or artificial people created for video games and other experiences. Saatchi is the organizer of The Virtual Beings Summit. His event explores what it means to create virtual beings, and it has been held a couple of times since mid-2019, and Saatchi is organizing a new event for June.

I did a rehearsal talk with Saatchi where we talked about other things as well, and I’ve included quotes from that conversation in this story, as well as quotes from the embedded video that aired at our event.

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From Saatchi’s view, AI is the next great art form. It is fighting for its legitimacy now, just as virtual reality, video games, films, comics, and other things had to fight for their legitimacy in the past.

“As game developers start to explore natural language processing, computer vision, and synthetic speech, we could move away from the slightly repetitive releases we have had recently,” said Saatchi, who is trying to bring together game developers and AI technologists through his summit. “I think there’s a lot of opportunity in developers exploring machine learning and artificial intelligence as if it were an art form.”

Dark history

Detroit Become Human E3 2016 01

Above: A rogue Android kidnaps a girl in Detroit: Become Human.

Image Credit: Sony

I opened with a question about the usual dark vision associated with artificial people, going back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Today, we’ve got Black Mirror, Terminator, Westworld, Detroit: Become Human, and more. I asked, “What are we so afraid of?”

We can see how fresh these fears are with Neon, a Samsung-backed spinoff that touted its artificial humans as assistants for people at CES 2020, the big tech trade show that took place in January. You could rent these people, who could become a doctor, chef, stewardess or some kind of replacement for a human.

It’s part of what Saatchi has called the “replacement fear narrative” that we have about artificial intelligence, or AI, replacing us. Westworld raises another “valid” fear about how AI could come to dominate humans, while another fear is loneliness, based on the worry that we could trick ourselves into having relationships with these beings out of loneliness, he said.

“There are quite a few movies and books, all with possible negative outcomes. That’s not what I believe, but it’s a pretty cool canon,” Saatchi said.

In Detroit: Become Human, the economic impact of robots replacing people causes massive unemployment. It’s a video game where we see the psychological impact, where people can inflict their darker impulses on artificial beings that we tell themselves aren’t real people, Saatchi said.

Then there’s Lucy

By contrast, Saatchi’s team created the cartoonish virtual reality (and soon to be non-VR) character Lucy from Wolves in the Walls, a VR experience inspired by a book by Neil Gaiman.

“For us, there’s a world where virtual beings could help us become better people,” Saatchi said. “Beings who aren’t selfish, who aren’t motivated by greed or envy, who are able to listen to us and validate us and see us, could help us be kinder and gentler toward other real people. We all walk around with a huge amount of emotions, anxiety, things we can’t express to ourselves or to others.”

But we could say these things to a virtual being.

Lucy is a cute girl who believes wolves are in the walls of her house. She’s also a companion who looks you in the eye and talks with you, remembering the choices that you’ve made.

“Lucy is a kid, our first being, from a Neil Gaiman story,” Saatchi said. “You will be able to have video chats quite soon, interact with her, learn from her. We haven’t yet seen a connection between a character’s life you can follow on Instagram or YouTube, but also be able to talk to that character, check in with them, talk about what is going on with you, build empathy. For us, this is the first time you can interact with a character and build a set of memories and an emotional relationship with that character.”

Fable Studio is building out that interactive side of Lucy, as well as with other characters as well. Maybe Lucy will show up in Zoom meetings in the future, helping create the illusion that this character is real.

“She sees things in a hopeful and optimistic way,” Saatchi said. “In the conversations we have with Lucy, you get a sense of her as a real, three-dimensional character that is hopefully connective. In this coronavirus period, for us, it is always important for us to wake up in the morning feeling like you are doing something useful. Building a virtual being you can have conversations with, have a video chat with, and communicate with, feels even more important because the loneliness and feeling of isolation — the stuff we think about metaphorically — is real.”

In the story of Lucy, the fact that no one listens to her becomes a metaphor for what is going on in the family. When the wolves do come out of the walls, a crisis happens, and she has to take charge and lead her family to love each other and fight the wolves.

“We want you to feel like you can communicate with Lucy as your imaginary friend,” Saatchi said. “We want you to feel that there is a universe we have created and a logic to why you are communicating with each other that is not transactional. It’s not a virtual assistant relationship. It’s more of a story-driven, playful relationship.”

Do digital humans have to look realistic?

The Unreal Engine 5 will produce outstanding imagery for the PlayStation 5.

Above: The Unreal Engine 5 will produce outstanding imagery for the PlayStation 5.

Image Credit: Epic Games

Other visions of digital humans tend to push the envelope on realism. Epic Games’ is creating highly realistic demos of digital humans (like with its recent Unreal Engine 5 demo for the PlayStation 5) that will make use of the growing processing power of PCs and next-generation consoles.

But as noted, Lucy is a cartoon. Fable’s DNA includes veterans of Pixar (like cofounder Jessica Yaffa Shamash) and Dreamworks (Peter Billington), as well as artificial intelligence experts. And both are necessary to move virtual beings forward. Saatchi said it is easier to animate a character like Lucy. It’s still hard to get characters who look super-realistic, like Magic Leap’s Mica, to look real when they’re speaking to you.

With Lucy, Fable is going beyond the visuals to integrate a wide variety of AI aspects, including machine learning, computer vision, synthetic speech, memory, and computer animation. The idea is to have a narrative with Lucy leading the storyline, but also to create a real companion for you.

“We think memory is the thing that everyone should be working on or exploring in virtual beings because it might unlock some pretty profound things about how humans relate to each other, and eventually to a virtual being,” Saatchi said.

The visuals have improved over the years, Saatchi said, but the behavior, or the brain of the artificial character, hasn’t kept pace. Fable Studio spends less time on the visuals, and it spends more time on “memory” and the deepening one-to-one relationship between the human (you) and the character. The character should know who you are, with a memory that goes back in time about choices you have made.