Thursday, June 17, 2010

Fountain of Youth

NewScientist has a nice article talking about the possibility of immortal life through an avatar by digitally capturing your personality. Like we've talked about before, this would be viewed by your descendants or loved ones after your death in order to give them a momentary sense of comfort/respect.

"Ultimately, however, they aim to create a personalised, conscious avatar embodied in a robot - effectively enabling you, or some semblance of you, to achieve immortality. "If you can upload yourself into this digital form, it could live forever," says Nick Mayer of Lifenaut, a US company that is exploring ways to build lifelike avatars. "It really is a way of avoiding death."

...Like many people, I have often dreamed of having a clone: an alternative self that could share my workload, give me more leisure time and perhaps provide me with a way to live longer.

How my avatar looks may in the end matter less than its behaviour, according to researchers at the University of Central Florida in Orlando and the University of Illinois in Chicago. Since 2007, they have been collaborating on Project Lifelike, which aims to create a realistic avatar of Alexander Schwarzkopf, former director of the US National Science Foundation.

They showed around 1000 students videos and photos of Schwarzkopf, along with prototype avatars, and used the feedback to try to work out what features of a person people pay most attention to. They conclude that focusing on the idiosyncratic movements that make a person unique is more important than creating a lifelike image. "It might be how they cock their head when they speak or how they arch an eyebrow," says Steve Jones of the University of Illinois.

Equally important is ensuring that these movements appear in the correct context. To do this, Jones's team has been trying to link contextual markers like specific words or phrases with movements of the head, to indicate that the avatar is listening, for example. "If an avatar is listening to you tell a sad story, what you want to see is some empathy," says Jones, though he admits they haven't cracked this yet.

The next challenge is to make an avatar converse like a human. At the moment the most lifelike behaviour comes from chatbots, software that can analyse the context of a conversation and produce intelligent-sounding responses as if it is thinking. Lifenaut goes one step further by tailoring the chatbot software to an individual. According to Rollo Carpenter of artificial intelligence (AI) company Icogno in Exeter, UK, this is about the limit of what's possible at the moment, a software replica that is "not going to be self-aware or equivalent to you, but is one which other people could hold a conversation with and for a few moments at least believe that there was a part of you in there".

...Lifenaut's avatar might appear to respond like a human, but how do you get it to resemble you? The only way is to teach it about yourself. This personality upload is a laborious process. The first stage involves rating some 480 statements such as "I like to please others" and "I sympathise with the homeless", according to how accurately they reflect my feelings.

...One alternative would be to automatically capture information about your daily life and feed it directly into an avatar. "Lifeloggers" such as Microsoft researcher Gordon Bell are already doing this to some extent, by wearing a portable camera that records large portions of their lives on film.

A team led by Nigel Shadbolt at the University of Southampton, UK, is trying to improve on this by developing software that can combine digital images taken throughout the day with information from your diary, social networking sites you have visited, and GPS recordings of your location. Other researchers are considering integrating physiological data like heart rate to provide basic emotional context. To date, however, there has been little effort to combine all this into anything resembling an avatar. We're still some way off creating an accurate replica of an individual, says Shadbolt. "I'm sure we could create a software agent with attitude, but whether it's my attitude seems to be very doubtful," he says."

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