by Chantel McGee
May 21, 2017
Mark Sagar showing
emotion recognition technology
Source: Soul Machines
The man who built a
virtual nervous system
explains how humans will
interact with machines
in ten years.
Mark Sagar invented a virtual nervous system
that powers autonomous animated
He is best known for developing Baby X,
a virtual infant that learns
Sagar says people will learn how to work cooperatively
with AI powered robots.
In ten years artificially intelligent robots will be living and
working with us, according to Dr. Mark Sagar, CEO of
Soul Machines, an Auckland, New
Zealand-based company that develops intelligent, emotionally
Sagar, an AI engineer, is the inventor of a virtual nervous system
that powers autonomous animated avatars like
Baby X - a virtual infant that
learns through experience and can "feel" emotions.
"We are creating
realistic adult avatars serving as virtual assistants. You can
use them to plug into existing systems like IBM Watson or
Cortana - putting a face on a chatbot," said Sagar.
Within a decade humans
will be interacting with lifelike emotionally-responsive AI robots,
very similar to the premise of the the HBO hit series Westworld,
But before that scenario becomes a reality robotics will have to
catch up to AI technology.
is not really at the level of control that's required," he said.
The biological models
Sagar has developed are building blocks for experimentation.
"We have been working
on the deepest aspect of the technology - biologically-inspired
cognitive architectures. Simplified models of the brain," he
At the core of the
technology, are virtual neurotransmitters that can simulate human
hormones like dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin.
With computer graphics, Sagar says he can easily develop virtual
humans that can simulate natural movements like a smirk or blinking
of the eyes, which is not as easy to replicate with robots.
will have to get to the point where we can start creating
realistic simulations. The cost of doing that is really high,"
"Creating a robotic
owl for example would take half a year or something. The
economics are quite different from computer graphics," said
In about five years,
Sagar says the system he has created could be used to power virtual
"We want to create VR
experiences where users can freely move through a world and the
characters start to have a life of their own," he said.
"Once you put your AR
or VR glasses on, you will have this alternate populated world
of fantastic things that people haven't even imagined yet," said
Nadia, a virtual avatar created as part of
National Disability Insurance Scheme
Source: Soul Machines
The company recently introduced Nadia, a virtual assistant
that helps people navigate information as part of the National
Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS)
in Australia. (Nadia's voice is that of actress
"By adding voice
you're able to increase the dimensions of communication," he
The NDIS developed Nadia
to help provide support for its disabled participants.
government is taking away the boring, painful things like
repeated questions, a computer can do that and then the humans
can respond to the more complex or more important questions.
Freeing them up from mundane tasks," said Sagar.
His goal is to shift the
way humans communicate and interact with machines.
"We are creating an
interactive loop between the user and the computer. A real-time
feedback loop in face-to-face interactions. If [the avatar]
isn't understanding, it can express that," he said.
Baby X, can see through a computer's camera and hear through its
"Because it can see,
you can show it things, which starts mixing the real world and
the virtual world," he said.
Nadia's ability to
express emotions and read the expressions of others is an essential
part of the user experience, according to Sagar.
intelligent and emotionally aware interactions between people
and machines," he said.
Sagar and his team are
looking at other possible applications of the technology including
medical education, psychological research and children's characters
that can be used for edutainment.
"It could become a
platform for which [animation studios] could build all types of
different characters," said Sagar. "It can also be [used] to
create characters for medical simulation or training," he said.
There is already a shift
in the way humans interact with machines, he said.
"We'll see increasing
use of [AI] in lots of types of jobs to enhance people's
abilities," he said.
And if we want to know
what the future relationship between humans and machines will look
like, he says, look no further than our own daily interactions with
other humans for clues.
together is basically what has created all technology and art
and all kinds of things," said Sagar. "When we start adding on
to that the creative possibilities of machines, it radically
expands," he said.